ABC News(NEW YORK) — With Hurricane Matthew tracking closer to the U.S. coast Thursday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned “this storm will kill you,” making a final plea for residents living in evacuation zones to leave before the deadly storm is expected to hit the southeast state early Thursday morning.
Other officials have echoed Scott’s urgency as the hurricane batters the Bahamas and strengthens over the warm waters of the Atlantic.
“The extreme winds of a major hurricane can do a lot of damage and not just at the coast,” Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center, told Good Morning America Thursday morning.
“Those winds can penetrate inland and that would be more so the case the closer it gets to the coast,” Knabb warned. “In addition to the wind, you have storm surge potential.
“People who have been told to evacuate, they need to get out this morning, right away, because time is running out fast. You don’t want to be caught in the storm surge which is the deadliest hazard of all.”
Officials in three southeast U.S. states have urged about 2 million people to head to safer ground as the most powerful storm to threaten the Atlantic Coast in more than a decade continued on its path northwest toward the United States at about 12 mph, packing 125 mph winds with higher gusts.
About 8 million Florida residents scrambled to make last-minute preparations as the storm was expected to strengthen from a Category 3 to a Category 4 hurricane with 145 mph winds before approaching the state Thursday night. The track showed Hurricane Matthew possibly making landfall just north of West Palm Beach, Florida, sometime early Thursday around 2 a.m. ET.
“It is very rare to have a hurricane of this strength to come this close or make landfall in eastern part of central or northern Florida,” ABC meteorologist Max Golembo said.
Up to 15 inches of rain may fall in some areas, and a storm surge of up to 8 feet was expected along the coast from central Florida to Georgia, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The National Hurricane Center extended its hurricane warning and its hurricane watch further north into Georgia and South Carolina, respectively, at 5 a.m. ET Thursday morning as the eye of the storm moved closer to Florida. As of 8 a.m. ET, Hurricane Matthew’s center was 215 miles southeast of West Palm Beach.
“There is a danger of life-threatening inundation during the next 36 hours along the Florida east coast and Georgia coast,” the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory issued Thursday morning at 5 a.m. ET.
Motorists clogged highways, homeowners boarded up windows and anxious shoppers lined up at grocery stores and gas stations as they stocked up on emergency supplies in the threatened coastal areas.
“The eye has reformed, and the convection has intensified rapidly, all indicative of a storm that is going to strengthen,” ABC meteorologist Daniel Manzo said.
“While the forecast looks like Matthew will bring devastating effects to the east coast of Florida, a small change in the track could have drastic changes in impact,” he added. “If the storm were to track even 20 to 40 miles east of the present forecast, it would be less intense along the east coast of Florida.”
Hurricane Matthew has already claimed at least 16 lives in the Caribbean, including 10 in Haiti.
After a briefing with his homeland security team at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, President Obama told reporters Hurricane Matthew is “a serious storm, and we want everybody to take it seriously as well.”
“Just remember that you can always rebuild,” Obama said. “You can always repair property. You cannot restore a life if it is lost and we want to make sure that we minimize any possible loss of life or risk to people in these areas.”
No other Atlantic storm on record has packed such powerful winds for such a prolonged period as Hurricane Matthew, which has claimed at least 16 lives after causing extensive damages in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba this week, bringing widespread torrential rain and flooding to the region.
More than 377,000 people were evacuated in Cuba, according to the United Nations. And in Haiti, at least 350,000 people are in need of immediate assistance after the hurricane’s deadly impact. There were reports of a powerful storm surge, violent winds and widespread flooding.
Matthew bore down on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas Thursday morning, the country’s most populous island that has not seen a major hurricane on its shores since 1929. Up to 15 inches of rain and up to 15 foot storm surges were expected from Wednesday through today in the Bahamas, which was hosting nearly 3,500 tourists.
As of 8 a.m. ET, Hurricane Matthew’s center was 30 miles southwest of the Bahamas capital of Nassau, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Models released by the National Hurricane Center at 8 a.m. ET Thursday show the storm hitting the North and South Carolina coastlines this weekend after making landfall in Florida. The storm then takes a severe turn southeast Sunday and heads back out to sea, the models show.
A swath of central and northern Florida remained under a hurricane watch Thursday, while forecasters said nearly all of the Sunshine State can expect to see tropical storm-force winds and rain. A major hurricane has not struck Florida in over a decade.
Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward counties canceled schools for the rest of the week as the governor deployed 2,500 National Guard troops to assist in storm preparations, with another 4,000 on standby. About 1.5 million residents have been urged to evacuate, and as many as 8 million Floridians are in the storm’s path.
Florida Gov. Scott warned residents to heed the advisories and move inland as he ordered state offices in 26 counties closed and suspended tolls. During a news conference this morning, Scott urged Floridians to “prepare for a direct hit,” as millions of residents are expected to lose power in the storm.
Further up the coast, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal expanded the state of emergency Wednesday night from 13 to 30 counties in the southeastern region of the state. About 50,000 were ordered to evacuate.
In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley announced plans for additional evacuations Thursday, bringing the total to about 500,000 people ordered to move from coastal areas. At a news conference Wednesday, Haley said all hotels in the state were “pretty much full.”
Most of the state’s public schools and government offices are shuttered for the remainder of the week.
In North Carolina, Pat McCrory said in a prepared statement, “There is still a great deal of uncertainty in the forecast models and we remain prepared to respond if Matthew changes course again. If the storm continues on its current track, we stand by ready to provide assistance, including swift water rescue boats and air support, for our neighbors in South Carolina and Georgia as needed.”
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