Nearly two million people were under evacuation orders in Florida Georgia and the Carolinas where residents stocked up on supplies and boarding up homes as Hurricane Matthew marched toward the U.S.
Hurricane Matthew was a dangerous and life-threatening Category 3 storm Thursday with sustained winds of 125 mph as it pounded the Bahamas. Matthew was expected to strengthen over the next day into an even more destructive Category 4 as it neared Florida. At least 16 deaths in the Caribbean have been blamed on the storm, with heavy damage reported in Haiti.
As the early morning approached Thursday, Matthew was centered about 295 miles southeast of West Palm Beach and moving northwest at 10 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. The agency reaffirmed the notion that the storm could potentially increase to a Category 4 as it eyes the Atlantic.
“When a hurricane is forecast to take a track roughly parallel to a coastline, as Matthew is forecast to do from Florida through South Carolina, it becomes very difficult to specify impacts at any one location,” National Hurricane Center forecaster Lixion Avila said.
The National Hurricane Center warned Wednesday that “catastrophic damage” was also a possibility and that some areas could be “uninhabitable for weeks.”
Florida can expect as much as 10 inches of rain in some isolated areas.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said his state could see its biggest evacuation ever. “If you’re able to go early, leave now,” he added.
“This thing is getting close to our coast, you better be ready before. If it turns at the last minute, you’re not going to have time to get ready. You’re not going to be able to get your food and water. You’re not going to be able to evacuate. You’re going to put you and your family’s life at risk.”
The storm was forecast to scrape much of the Florida coast and any slight deviation could mean landfall or heading farther out to sea. Either way, it was going to be close enough to wreak havoc along the southeastern U.S. and many people weren’t taking any changes.
In Melbourne Beach, near the Kennedy Space Center, Carlos and April Medina moved their paddle board and kayak inside the garage and took pictures off the walls of their home about 500 feet from the coast. They moved the pool furniture inside, turned off the water, disconnected all electrical appliances and emptied their refrigerator.
They then hopped in a truck filled with legal documents, jewelry and a decorative carved shell that had once belonged to April Medina’s great-grandfather and headed west to Orlando, where they planned to ride out the storm with their daughter’s family.
“The way we see it, if it maintains its current path, we get tropical storm-strength winds. If it makes a little shift to the left, it could be a Category 2 or 3 and I don’t want to be anywhere near it,” Carlos Medina said. “We are just being a little safe, a little bit more cautious.”
About 20 miles away in the town of Cape Canaveral, John Long said Hurricane Matthew is just hype as his neighbors in his RV park packed up and evacuated inland. Even though his 32-foot RV is just feet from the Banana River and a half mile from the beach, he had no plans to leave.
Long, who owns a bike shop and has lived along the Space Coast for 30 years, said he has a generator and enough food and water for himself and his cats to last a week.
“There’s always tremendous buildup and then it’s no stronger than an afternoon thunderstorm,” he said. “I’m not anticipating that much damage.”
In Fort Lauderdale, about 200 miles south, six employees at a seven-bedroom Mediterranean-style mansion packed up for an evacuation fearing any storm surge could flood the property. The homeowners planned to move to another home they own in Palm Beach that’s further from the water. Two Lamborghinis and a Ferrari had been placed inside the garage, but employee Mae White wasn’t sure what they would do with a Rolls Royce, Mustang and other cars still parked in the driveway.
“This storm surge. It’s scary,” White said. “You’re on the water, you’ve got to go.”
Meanwhile, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley reversed lanes of Interstate 26 so that all lanes of traffic were headed west and out of Charleston. It was the first time the lanes had been reversed. Plans to reverse the lanes were put in place after hours-long traffic jams during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Scott also lifted tolls on major roads. The Florida Turnpike, Alligator Alley and roads apart of the Central Florida Expressway Authority and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority had toll services suspended, according to Fox 35 Orlando.
The governor planned to call for more evacuations on Thursday, which would bring the total to about 500,000 people in the state. Florida urged or ordered about 1.5 million to leave the coast, said Jackie Schutz, spokeswoman for Scott. Georgia had around 50,000 people told to go.
At Folly Beach, South Carolina, southwest of Charleston, Gaby Trompeter loaded her car at her beachfront home preparing to evacuate to Augusta, Georgia.
Trompeter, a 50-year-old goldsmith who designs and makes jewelry, remembers Hurricane Hugo when she stayed in Savannah, Georgia, in 1989.
A year ago when what has been described as a 1,000-year flood inundated South Carolina there was so much water on the road near her house she couldn’t get out for three days.
“If it brings a lot of rain, more than the storm last year, why would I want to stay?” she said.
President Barack Obama visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters Wednesday to be briefed on preparations. FEMA has deployed personnel to emergency operation centers in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
On the Georgia coast, 92-year-old Lou Arcangeli saw two of his adult children come to his home on Tybee Island to help prepare and evacuate if necessary.
“It’s serious,” said Arcangeli, who has lived in the Savannah area since 1979, when Hurricane David became the last hurricane to make landfall on Georgia’s 100-mile coast. “I’m going to keep an eye on it and not wait until the last minute. As far as I’m concerned, what’s going to happen is going to happen.”
Farmers in Matthew’s path scrambled to protect their crops. In South Carolina, Jeremy Cannon was harvesting his soybeans a week early after waiting too long before last year’s record rainstorm. He watched his soybeans and cotton crops slowly drown as 20 inches of rain fell, costing him $800,000.
“I don’t want to lose a single soybean this year if I don’t have to,” Cannon said. “The Lord says pray without ceasing. And that’s what I’ve been doing — in the fields, near the barn — just praying all the time. I don’t want to find out what I’ll have to do if I get wiped out for another year.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.