(MIAMI) — Floridians are bracing for what meteorologists say could be the strongest storm to hit the United States in more than a decade. After pummeling the Caribbean and the Bahamas, Hurricane Matthew is expected to make landfall in West Palm Beach, Florida, early Friday morning.
According to the National Hurricane Center, the storm has been upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane, packing 140 mph winds. Hurricane Matthew could strengthen to a Category 5 before making landfall in Florida, ABC News meteorologist Max Golembo warned.
Here’s how the Sunshine State is preparing for the powerful storm:
Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Monday declared a state of emergency in every county as Matthew continued on its path toward the United States. Hurricane Matthew 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.
“This storm will kill you,” Scott warned Floridians during a news conference Thursday morning.
As of 11 a.m. ET, Hurricane Matthew’s center was just west of the Bahamas capital of Nassau and 180 miles southeast of West Palm Beach. The storm is moving northwest at about 14 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The current track showed Hurricane Matthew possibly making landfall just north of West Palm Beach, Florida, sometime early Friday and remaining a Category 4 as it moved toward the Jacksonville area.
Upon Gov. Scott’s request, President Obama on Thursday declared a state of emergency in Florida and ordered federal aid to supplement state, tribal and local response efforts. The move authorizes the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate all disaster relief efforts.
Hurricane warnings covered a swath of Florida Thursday, while forecasters said nearly all of the southeast state can expect to see tropical storm-force winds and rain. A major hurricane has not struck Florida in over a decade.
As of 11 a.m. Thursday, a hurricane warning was in effect from north of Golden Beach in Florida to Edisto Beach in South Carolina, as well as Florida’s Lake Okeechobee.
A tropical storm warning was also in effect from Chokoloskee to Golden Beach, the Florida Keys from the Seven Mile Bridge eastward and Florida Bay. Meanwhile, a tropical storm watch was in effect from north of Chokoloskee to Anclote River.
About 1.5 million residents have been urged to evacuate, and as many as eight million Floridians are in the storm’s path. Gov. Scott said this could be the largest evacuation that Florida has ever experienced.
“Time’s running out. Leave. There’s no excuses,” Scott said at the news conference Thursday morning. “This is life and death.”
Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for barrier islands, low-lying areas and mobile homes in Brevard, Duval, Flagler, Indian River, Nassau, Palm Beach, St. Johns and Volusia counties. Voluntary evacuations have been issued for parts of Broward, Camden, Clay, DeSoto, Glyn, Hendry, Martin, Miami-Dade, St. Lucie counties.
FEMA has advised all residents to “take evacuation orders seriously.”
Millions of Floridians are also expected to lose power and dozens of shelters have been set up to accommodate affected residents, the governor said.
“There’s no question, you will lose power,” Scott said. “We just don’t know how long.”
Businesses, Schools Closed
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 coastal areas.
State and county offices in 26 counties are closed Thursday and Friday, and Scott has suspended tolls as he urged Floridians to “prepare for a direct hit.”
“We are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” Scott said at the news conference.
Schools across most of the state are closed for the rest of the week as Hurricane Matthew threatens heavy rain, strong rip currents, beach erosion, hurricane-force winds, a storm surge up to 9 feet and the possibility of tornadoes.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport shuttered its operations Thursday and North Perry Airport suspended its air service. Although Miami International Airport technically remains open, hundreds of flights have been cancelled and it plans to halt its operations Thursday. Orlando Sanford International Airport will cease all commercial flight activity by Thursday night through all day Friday.
Boots on the Ground
Gov. Scott deployed 2,500 National Guard troops to assist in storm preparations, with another 4,000 on standby.
“Our No. 1 priority — keep everybody safe,” he said.
Still, residents shouldn’t take the additional reinforcements as an excuse not to evacuate Thursday.
“Don’t take a chance that somebody’s going to be there if you wait to evacuate,” Scott warned. “No excuses. Get out.”
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