Hurricane Matthew has strengthened to a catastrophic Category 4 storm as it barrels toward the heavily populated coast of Florida.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami says the top sustained winds are now at 140 miles an hour.
They’re expected to maintain their strength as the storm approaches the Florida coast. The storm is expected to start affecting Florida by early afternoon.
Hurricane Matthew is pummeling the Bahamas right now, and its dangerous winds have picked up speed as the storm continues north. Its next stop could be the United States.
Here’s what you need to know now about the powerful storm that forecasters say is gaining strength:
• Hurricane Matthew has strengthened into a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 140 mph and gusts up to 165 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Matthew continues to head toward Florida’s east coast and is expected to hit the coast late Thursday or early Friday. As of 11 a.m. ET, it was located about 180 miles southeast of West Palm Beach and was moving northwest at 14 mph.
• The storm has already killed at least 28 people in three Caribbean countries. Twenty-three died in Haiti alone, said Civil Protection Service spokesman Joseph Edgard Celestin, who says communication issues have prevented authorities from assessing the damage and casualties in the far southwest portion of the country.
•Disney theme parks in Florida are expected to close today at 5 p.m. (Eastern) as Hurricane Matthew nears East Coast. They will remain closed through Friday, October 7th, and are expected to reopen on Saturday, October 8.
• Daytona Beach, Florida, Mayor Derrick Henry told CNN he fears residents might be emboldened by the fact that his city hasn’t seen a direct hit from a hurricane in four decades. “We’re not immune. … Get out. That is our message and that is our hope. Worry about your possessions later. Take care of your life now. You only have one life,” he said. St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver issued a similar warning.
• Authorities urged more than 2 million people to leave their homes in coastal Florida, Georgia and South Carolina as the storm neared — the largest mandatory evacuations in the United States since Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012.
• Based on the latest projections, Matthew could make landfall in Florida as a Category 4 hurricane. It could also skirt the coast as it continues north. While Matthew’s outer bands were already starting to hit Miami-Dade County by mid-morning, Mayor Carlos Jimenez said there’s a bit of good news: “The probability of sustained hurricane winds has gone down 13%.” The latest advisory says hurricane-force winds will extend 60 miles from Matthew’s eye, while tropical storm force winds will impact areas 160 miles from the eye.
• Florida Gov. Rick Scott offered a dire warning Thursday morning for people living in evacuation zones: “This is serious. … If you need to evacuate and you haven’t, evacuate. This storm will kill you. Time is running out. We don’t have that much time left.”
Florida braces for direct hit
Gov. Scott warned 1.5 million residents not to take evacuation orders lightly, telling Floridians on the state’s east coast the question is not whether they will lose power, but for how long.
“There is no reason not to evacuate,” he said. “No one should be taking any chances.”
A direct hit by Matthew, he said, could lead to “massive destruction” on a level unseen since Hurricane Andrew devastated the Miami area in 1992. Voluntary and mandatory evacuations in his state stretch from the Miami area all the way north to the Florida-Georgia border.
People who stayed behind stocked up on supplies and boarded up windows.
Many residents found long gas lines Wednesday. But so far, the state isn’t running short on supplies, Scott said.
Airline passengers were urged to call before leaving for the airport. As of mid-morning, Florida airports had canceled almost 1,400 flights, most of them at Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. Fort Lauderdale has closed it airport, while Miami intends to close at noon and Orlando is slated to close at 8 p.m., airport officials said.
Palm Beach residents cleared many grocery store shelves ahead of the storm.
In Jupiter, resident Randy Jordan told CNN affiliate WPEC people were pushing and shoving their way through the local Home Depot to buy supplies ranging from batteries to flashlights.
Mandatory evacuations in South Carolina
Cars packed highways in South Carolina, where officials gave mandatory evacuation orders for several counties.
So far, about 250,000 people have left the area. And as many as 200,000 people will leave Thursday, said Kim Stenson, the director of South Carolina Emergency Management.
Tempers apparently flared during the slow traffic. A man got out of his truck at a point where vehicles were being redirected, removed a traffic cone and sped away. Police chased the man until he stopped on a dead-end road. The man fired at deputies and police officers, who shot back and wounded him, Berkeley County Chief Deputy Mike Cochran told CNN. The man was hospitalized, but his condition is unknown.
The South Carolina Department of Transportation changed the directions of eastbound traffic lanes to accommodate the exodus of people leaving coastal cities like Charleston.
As thousands fled inland, some people said they were staying put. Charleston residents boarded up businesses and prepared to hunker down.
Cheryl Quinn said she and her husband were fine a year ago when Charleston endured heavy rain after a brush with a big storm.
“It was kind of a party down here. I hate to say that,” she said, but she’s reserved a hotel room, just in case.
North Carolina playing it by ear
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency for more than half the state’s 100 counties. So far, though, the governor has not urged residents to evacuate.
“We’re just going to have to play it by ear and have our resources ready,” the governor said.
Officials are still concerned areas in eastern North Carolina that were recently flooded will see drenching rains from Matthew.
Georgia governor: ‘Remain calm, be prepared’
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has declared a state of emergency in 30 counties on or near the Atlantic Coast and ordered evacuations for several counties, all on the coast, east of Interstate 95.
Of special concern is Tybee Island, a low-lying island east of Savannah, which is also under mandatory evacuation orders.
“Remain calm, be prepared and make informed, responsible decisions,” Deal said.