JUPITER/ORLANDO, Fla. — Hurricane Matthew, the fiercest Caribbean storm in nearly a decade, strengthened as it barreled toward the southeastern United States on Thursday after killing at least 283 people in Haiti, on its deadly northward march.
As Matthew blew through the northwestern Bahamas on Thursday en route to Florida's Atlantic coast, it became an "extremely dangerous" hurricane carrying winds of 140 miles per hour (220 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
That made it a Category 4 hurricane and it was likely to remain so as it approached the United States, where it could either take direct aim at Florida or brush along the state's coast through Friday night, the center said.
Some 283 people were killed in Haiti, local officials said, and thousands were displaced after the storm flattened homes, uprooted trees and inundated neighborhoods earlier in the week.
As the storm passed about 25 miles (40 km) from the Bahamas capital of Nassau, howling gusts of wind brought down palms and other trees and flipped shingles off the rooftops of many houses. Bahamas Power and Light disconnected much of Nassau as Matthew bore down on the town.
No structural damage was immediately visible, a Reuters witness said, and rain was fairly light. No fatalities were reported.
It was too soon to predict where Matthew might do the most of its damage in the United States but the National Hurricane Center's hurricane warning extended up the Atlantic coast from southern Florida through Georgia and into South Carolina. More than 12 million people in the United States were under hurricane watches and warnings, according to the Weather Channel.
ROADS FILLED WITH EVACUEES
Roads in Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina were jammed and gas stations and food stores ran out of supplies as the storm approached with not just high winds but strong storm surges and drenching rain.
Florida Governor Rick Scott warned there could be "catastrophic" damage if Matthew slammed directly into the state, and urged some 1.5 million people there to heed evacuation orders.
"If you're reluctant to evacuate, just think about all the people... already killed," Scott said at a news conference on Thursday. "Time is running out. This is clearly either going to have a direct hit or come right along the coast and we're going to have hurricane-force winds."
Scott, who activated several thousand National Guard troops to help deal with the storm, warned that millions of people were likely to be left without power.
Florida, Georgia and South Carolina opened shelters for evacuees. As of Thursday morning, more than 3,000 people were being housed in 60 shelters in Florida, Scott said.
Federal emergency response teams were coordinating with officials in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina and stockpiling supplies. Those declared states of emergency, a move empowering their governors to mobilize the National Guard.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest encouraged residents in the path of the storm to heed warnings from local governments about evacuations and seeking shelter.
Schools and airports across the region were closed on Thursday and some hospitals were evacuated, according to local media. Hundreds of flights were canceled in and out of the Florida cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, industry website Flightaware.com said.
At about 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT), Matthew was 180 miles (290 km) southeast of West Palm Beach, the hurricane center said. It was heading northwest at about 14 mph (22 kph) and was expected to continue on this track on Thursday, the hurricane center said. The eye, or center, of the storm was moving between Andros Island and New Providence in the northwestern Bahamas.
Matthew was forecast to pass close to Freeport, on Grand Bahama, the most industrialized part of Bahamas and home to Buckeye Partners LP's BORCO oil storage terminal, Statoil's south Riding Point Terminal as well as pharmaceutical manufacturing. Grand Bahamas Shipyard, also in Freeport and used by Carnival Corp. for cruise ship repairs, was closed from Monday as the storm approached.
On Tuesday and Wednesday Matthew, the strongest hurricane in the Caribbean since Felix struck Central America in 2007, had whipped Cuba and Haiti with 140 mph (225 kph) winds and torrential rain, pummeling towns and destroying livestock, crops and homes.
The last major hurricane, classified as a storm bearing sustained winds of more than 110 mph (177 kph), to hit the United States was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
'MIGHT NOT HAVE A HOUSE'
In Florida, fuel stations posted "out of gas" signs after cars waited in long lines to fill up. At a Subco gas station in Orlando, the central Florida city that is home to resorts including Walt Disney World, the gas pumps had run dry on Wednesday afternoon.
The shop was a stopping off point for coastal residents seeking shelter inland from the coast. Among them was Jonas Sylvan, 44, of Melbourne, Florida, who planned to hole up in a hotel with his wife, two daughters and dog. "We're just trying to get away from the coast," he said. "It's safer here."
Bumper-to-bumper traffic extended for more than 10 miles (16 km) on the main highway leading west to Orlando from the coast.
In the central Florida coastal city of Jupiter, people scrambled to make preparations.
"Our house is wood construction, so who knows what will happen," said Libby Valentine, 75, of Jupiter. "The whole idea is to stay safe and hope you have the grace to deal with the aftermath because you might not have a house."
Most stores were closed or planning to do so soon. A line of two dozen cars snaked out of a Marathon gas station and tied up traffic on a nearby road. Next door, the windows of a Sabor Latino Supermarket were covered with plywood and a hand-written sign said it closed at noon. Still people banged on the door, hoping to make last-minute purchases.
"What am I going to do now?" said Manuel Fernandez, 67, a construction worker who said he spent the last two days clearing all of the supplies out of the job site where he works. "Publix is closed, Walmart, now here, there's no place left."
(This version of the story corrects Scott quote, deleting words "who have been" in 11th paragraph.)
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Neil Hartnell in Nassau, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Harriet McLeod in Charleston, S.C., Doina Chiacu in Washington, Joseph Guyler Delva in Haiti and Laila Kearney; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Bill Trott)