(NEW YORK) — With the hours counting down until Hurricane Matthew is expected to slam into the coastal United States, widespread evacuations are taking effect as residents brace for the most powerful Atlantic storm in almost a decade.
After barreling through Haiti and Cuba, where it left behind a trail of devastation, the Category 3 hurricane will strike the Bahamas with maximum sustained winds of up to 115 mph. By Wednesday night or early Thursday morning, it’s expected to become a Category 4 storm again with winds up to 130 mph as it nears Florida, according to an advisory issued at 8 a.m. ET by the National Hurricane Center.
A hurricane warning is already in effect for parts of Florida, from Golden Beach north all the way up to Sebastian Inlet, as well as Lake Okeechobee. The area north of Sebastian Inlet to the Fernandina Beach is also under a hurricane watch.
Meanwhile, a tropical storm warning is in effect from Chokoloskee to Golden Beach, the Florida Keys from the Seven Mile Bridge eastward, as well as Florida Bay, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The governors of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina have already declared states of emergency. They have issued stern warnings for millions of coastal dwellers to prepare to evacuate as the Hurricane Matthew moves north-northwest at about 10 mph.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday urged coastal residents to “leave now” if they are able and warned the Sunshine State to prepare “for the worst.”
“We are preparing for the worst, we are hoping for the best and we’re not taking any chances,” Scott said at a news conference Wednesday morning. “We must prepare to be hit by a devastating hurricane.”
In Miami-Dade County, bridges will shut down at 8 p.m. ET ahead of the storm’s wrath. But Miami Mayor Gimenez said there are currently no evacuation plans for the city.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, however, is ordering an evacuation of Jacksonville Beach, Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach.
In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley is ordering an evacuation of the state’s coastal communities in phases because the storm has slowed slightly.
A quarter-million people will be evacuated Wednesday, starting in the Charleston and Beauford Counties at 3 p.m. ET. The scope of the evacuation may expand to include other areas Thursday, including parts of Horry and Georgetown, the governor said.
“The storm did slow down, and it did move somewhat, but we are not in stable territory yet,” Haley told reporters at a news conference Wednesday morning. “If you do not leave, you are putting a law enforcement officer life in jeopardy when they have to go for you.”
The U.S. Coast Guard is warning the public to stay off the water, secure their boats stay clear of beaches and follow evacuation orders, as their search and rescue capabilities will be limited as Hurricane Matthew strengthens.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is advising residents in states potentially affected by Hurricane Matthew to “familiarize themselves with evacuation routes now.”
President Obama is visiting the agency’s headquarters on Wednesday for a briefing on the federal response.
All U.S. airports remain open and fully operational. So far, flight cancellations are limited to flights to, from and through the Caribbean. The major airlines are offering customers waivers to change fees for affected flights to, from or through affected areas in the southeast United States.
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