(Reuters) – Hurricane Matthew, the fiercest Caribbean storm in nearly a decade, slammed into the Bahamas early on Thursday and intensified as it barreled toward the southeastern U.S. coast where millions of residents heeded warnings to flee inland.
Roadways in Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina were jammed and gas stations and food stores ran out of supplies as the storm approached, bringing storm surges, heavy rain and sustained winds that accelerated overnight to about 125 miles (205 km) per hour.
Matthew, which killed at least 39 people and displaced thousands, mostly in southern Haiti, was predicted to strengthen from a Category 3 to 4 storm en route to Florida’s Atlantic coast. Landfall was expected there on Thursday night, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
The center extended its hurricane warning area farther north into Georgia and more than 12 million U.S. residents were under a hurricane watches and warnings, according to the Weather Channel.
“Everyone in our state must prepare now for a direct hit,” Florida Governor Scott said at a news conference in Tallahassee on Wednesday. “If Matthew directly impacts Florida, the destruction could be catastrophic and you need to be prepared.”
The four states in the path of the hurricane, which was 215 miles (346 km) southeast of West Palm Beach at about 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT), declared states of emergency enabling their governors to mobilize the National Guard.
Shelters in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina opened their doors after authorities, along with President Barack Obama, urged people to evacuate their homes.
Federal emergency response teams were coordinating with officials in all four states and stockpiling supplies, Obama said.
Scott requested Obama declare a pre-landfall emergency for Florida, which would bring resources including food, water and waterproof coverings and double the active National Guard force to 3,000.
Schools and airports across the region were to closed on Thursday and some hospitals were evacuated, according to local media. Hundreds of flights were canceled in and out of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando, Florida, industry website Flightaware.com said early on Thursday.
‘ALL BOARDED UP’
In Florida, fuel stations posted “out of gas” signs after cars waited in long lines to fill up.
“Every gas station I went to is empty,” motorist Charles Bivona said in a Tweet late Wednesday. “Here comes Hurricane Matthew. Um, yikes.”
Others prepared to wait out the storm and stocked up on water, milk and canned goods, emptying grocery store shelves, footage from local media showed.
Residents and business owners boarded up windows with plywood and hurricane shutters and placed sandbags to protect property against flooding.
“All boarded up and ready to bunker down. God be with us,” West Palm Beach Florida resident Brad Gray said in a Tweet.
The National Hurricane Center said it was too soon to predict where in the United States Matthew was likely to do the most damage.
Matthew is the strongest hurricane in the Caribbean since Felix struck Central America in 2007.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, it whipped Cuba and Haiti with 140 mph (225 kph) winds and torrential rain, pummeling towns and destroying livestock, crops, and homes.
The devastation in Haiti, where officials on Thursday said at least 35 people were killed by the hurricane, prompted authorities to postpone a presidential election.
(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Laila Kearney; Editing by John Stonestreet and Bill Trott)