CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A deadly Hurricane Matthew steamed toward Florida with winds of 125 mph on Thursday as hundreds of thousands of people boarded up their homes, grabbed their belongings and fled inland to escape the most powerful storm to threaten the Atlantic coast in more than a decade.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott said the state, its skies already darkening from early outer rain bands of the life-threatening storm, could be facing its “biggest evacuation ever.”
The Category 3 hurricane barrelled over the Bahamas and was expected to scrape nearly the entire length of Florida’s Atlantic coast beginning Thursday evening. From there, it was expected to push its way just off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina before veering off to sea.
As people hurried for higher ground, authorities in South Carolina said a motorist died on Wednesday after being shot by deputies during an altercation along an evacuation route.
About 2 million people from Florida across Georgia to South Carolina were warned to head inland. Matthew killed at least 16 people in the Caribbean as it sliced through Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas.
“This is a dangerous storm,” Scott warned. “The storm has already killed people. We should expect the same impact in Florida.”
Florida emergency officials said more than 3,000 people were already in 48 school-based shelters, mostly in coastal counties where evacuations both mandatory and voluntary were underway. Patients also were transferred from two Florida waterfront hospitals and a nursing home near Daytona Beach to safer locations.
Major theme parks in Orlando, central Florida, remained open but were monitoring events even as Walt Disney World cancelled Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, a special ticket event scheduled Thursday night.
Deborah Whyte walked her dogs at Jupiter Beach Park on Thursday morning to check the surf.
“We boarded up our house and I boarded up my store” in Tequesta. “And we’re just hunkering down and waiting for it,” she said.
But others as far off as Georgia and South Carolina rushed to leave.
On Tybee Island, home to Georgia’s largest public beach, Loren Kook loaded up his pickup truck with suitcases and a computer late Wednesday afternoon to hit the road to metro Atlanta.
“It seems like a lot of the longtime residents are staying,” said Kook, who moved to the coast four years ago. “I’ve never sat through a Category Whatever. I’ll watch it on TV.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal had urged more than 522,000 residents of six vulnerable coastal counties to voluntarily evacuate. An evacuation hasn’t been seen in 17 years in coastal Georgia. Part of its coast was under a hurricane warning.
Officials at Florida’s major airports said Thursday that they are monitoring conditions as Matthew bears down on the state and warned of delays or cancellations. On its website, Fort Lauderdale International Airport announced plans to close at 10:30 a.m. Officials advised travellers to check with individual airlines about flight plans.
The storm is forecast to near the Florida coast starting Thursday night, potentially as a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds. Any slight deviation could mean landfall or it heading farther out to sea. Either way, forecasters say it will come close enough to wreak havoc along the lower part of the East Coast, dumping up to 15 inches of rain in some spots. Storm surge of 5 feet to 8 feet was expected along the coast from central Florida into Georgia.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said tropical storm conditions with rain and wind are first expected in the state later Thursday morning.
Some residents were defying the dire warnings about the huge storm heading their way.
Bike shop owner John Long, who lives in Cape Canaveral, said Thursday that he was glad he decided to stay put even though most of his neighbours in the RV park had evacuated.
“No second thoughts,” said Long, who was reached by telephone as he sat in a lawn chair outside his RV.
“I’m not going to downplay the scenario, but right now, there is absolutely no sign there’s a hurricane offshore,” adding that it was drizzling with a slight wind.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley planned to call for more evacuations 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 Gov. Rick Scott. About 50,000 people were told to go in Georgia.
Early Thursday, Matthew’s centre was about 215 miles southeast of West Palm Beach, Florida, and slogging ever closer at a 12 mph.
Kennedy reported from Fort Lauderdale. Associated Press reporters Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Freida Frisaro in Miami, Jennifer Kay in Miami Beach, Florida; Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia; Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, North Carolina; Jeffrey Collins, Jack Jones and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina; and Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina, contributed to this report.