(NEW YORK) — Hurricane Matthew tracked closer to the U.S. coast on Thursday, strengthening over the warm waters of the Atlantic as officials warned residents of coastal areas to get out while they can.
“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.
“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 states urged some 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 toward the U.S. at about 10 mph, packing 125 mph winds.
Some 8 million Florida residents scrambled to make last-minute preparations as the deadly storm was expected to strengthen to a Category 4 hurricane with 145 mph winds before approaching the state on Thursday night.
Up to 15 inches of rain may fall in spots, and a storm surge of up to 8 feet was expected along the coast from central Florida to Georgia.
The National Hurricane Center extended its hurricane warning and its hurricane watch further north into Georgia and South Carolina, respectively, as the eye of the storm churned about 255 miles southeast of West Palm Beach, Florida at 5 a.m. Thursday.
“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 a 5 a.m. ET advisory.
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,” Manzo said. “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.
Following a briefing with his homeland security team at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, President Obama told reporters Hurricane Matthew is “a serious storm, and we want everybody to take it seriously as well.”
— Homeland Security (@DHSgov) October 5, 2016
“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.”
Matthew bore down on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas on Thursday morning, the country’s most populous island that has not seen a major hurricane on its shores since 1929.
A swath of central and northern Florida remained under a hurricane watch, while forecasters said nearly all of the state can expect to see tropical storm force winds and rain. A major hurricane has not struck Florida in over a decade.
Miami-Dade and Broward counties canceled schools for the rest of the week as the governor called up 1,500 National Guard troops to assist in storm preparations. Some 1.5 million Floridians have been urged to evacuate from the storm’s path. As many as 8 million Floridians are in the storm’s path.
Governor Rick Scott warned residents to heed the advisories and move inland as he ordered state offices in 26 counties closed and suspended tolls.
Further up the coast, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal expanded the state of emergency on Wednesday night from 13 to 30 counties in the southeastern region of the state. Some 50,000 were ordered to evacuate.
In South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley announced plans for additional evacuations on Thursday, bringing the total to about 500,000 people ordered to move from coastal areas. At a press conference on Wednesday, Haley said the that all hotels in the state were “pretty much full.” Most of the state’s public schools and government offices shuttered for the remainder of the week.
“There is still a great deal of uncertainty in the forecast models and we remain prepared to respond if Matthew changes course again,” North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory said in a statement. “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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