Thousands of Americans headed for higher ground Wednesday as Hurricane Matthew barreled toward the Florida and South Carolina coast and the death toll from the monster storm climbed to at least 25...
Evacuations were underway in the Sunshine State after Matthew, which hammered Haiti and strafed Cuba, began battering the Bahamas.
"We are preparing for the worst, we are hoping for the best and we're not taking any chances," said Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who warned that the Sunshine State could begin to feel Matthew's wrath within the next 24 hours.
The path of the storm:
- The forecast is for the eye of the storm to pass near Freeport, the Bahamas, on Thursday morning.
- Southeast Florida, specifically the West Palm Beach area, will likely be hit Thursday afternoon by tropical storm strength wind gusts. By Friday morning, Melbourne and/or Daytona Beach, Florida, could begin to be battered by hurricane wind gusts and rain.
- Charleston, South Carolina, should start feeling the effects of the storm on Saturday morning. By the afternoon, it's expected to be off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where it is forecast to weaken as it turns eastward and moves away from the land.
"Based on the current forecast the center of the storm will be close to Cape Canaveral on Friday morning," he said. "Regardless, if there is a direct impact the effects will be devastating."
In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley ordered everybody out of the historic-but-low-lying cities of Charleston and Beaufort. And in a bid to keep the highways from being clogged, Haley urged Georgetown and Horry County residents to sit tight until Thursday.
"What we're trying to do is actually because the storm changed, we are changing with the storm," Haley said. "Beaufort and Charleston definitely need to go ahead and plan on evacuating at 3, but we saw that because the storm had slowed down, we can move that evacuation for Georgetown and Horry to tomorrow morning."
But even before Haley spoke, west-bound traffic on Interstate 26 was already packed with South Carolinians and visitors like Lydia and Steve Dalton of Zionsville, Indiana headed away from the coast in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
"It took us a long time to get out of Charleston," Lydia Dalton told NBC News. "We thought we were leaving way ahead of everyone else."
Many were headed for the state capital Columbia, where hotel rooms were already scarce.
"The phones have been ringing off the hooks," said Jana Medlin, director of sales at the Inn at USC Wyndham Garden near the University of South Carolina campus.
Meanwhile, President Obama was briefed on the storm and the federal response at Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters.
"I want to emphasize to the public: This is a serious storm," Obama said. "It has already hit Haiti with devastating effect. It is now in the process of moving through the Bahamas. Because it's not going to be hitting enough land, it is going to be building strength on its way to Florida."
"Not only is there still a chance that the core of the storm strikes Florida and some of the states further north, but even if you don't get the full force of the hurricane, we are still going to be seeing tropical force winds, the potential for a storm surge, and all of that could have a devastating effect," Obama added.
So far, according to officials, the monster storm is being blamed for 25 deaths: 19 in Haiti; four in the Dominican Republic; one on the island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines; one in northeastern Colombia.
On Florida's east coast, mandatory evacuations were underway from the barrier islands in Brevard County and many coastal residents in Duval, Volusia and Flagler counties were already starting to head inland.
There were empty shelves and long gas station lines as residents stocked up on supplies and fuel and prepared to make their own exodus ahead of the storm.
Scott, like the governors of Georgia and the Carolinas, has already declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. He also ordered state offices in 26 counties closed on Thursday and Friday.
"It's a good that [people] are actually paying attention to the storm and are being prepared," said 45-year-old Stacie Klein of Delray Beach, Florida.
Several stores had been picked clean by Tuesday, Klein said.
"If things look too bad, it's hotel bound for me," she added. "I'm glued to the TV and have notifications and alerts sent to my phone."
Until Hurricane Hermine hit the Sunshine State last month as a Category 1 storm, many Floridians had never experienced one. More that a million people have moved to Florida since the last major hurricane, Wilma, hit the state in 2005, according to U.S. Census Figures.
Food and gas shortages were also reported up in South Carolina.
Myrtle Beach resident Michaela Choate, 22, said she "couldn't even get near a gas station" on Tuesday.
"It was so packed. You couldn't get into the parking lot," said Choate, who was able to fill up Wednesday before taking off with her family for Asheville, North Carolina.
"It's kind of scary to think something like this is coming to hit our home," she said.
The Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, police department asked residents to avoid calling 911 over gas shortages, adding, "Remember to be patient with one another."
Matthew caused widespread damage across Haiti before making landfall in in Cuba around 8 p.m. ET Tuesday. It strafed Cuba's coast and was expected to being bearing down on the Bahamas later Wednesday.
"There is a danger of life-threatening inundation during the next 36 hours along the Florida east coast from North Palm Beach to the Sebastian Inlet," the National Hurricane Center said Wednesday.
North Carolina Gov. Gov. Pat McCrory had also declared an emergency in 66 counties, but on Wednesday he expressed relief as the latest models showed the storm moving away from the coastal areas of his state.
"I just hope that thing goes out to the ocean before it even hits our borders," he said.