FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — People boarded up beach homes, schools closed and officials ordered evacuations along the East Coast on Wednesday as Hurricane Matthew tore through the Bahamas and took aim at Florida, where the governor urged coastal residents to "leave now" if they were able.
Matthew was a dangerous and life-threatening Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 120 mph, and it was expected to be very near Florida's Atlantic coast by Thursday evening. At least 11 deaths in the Caribbean have been blamed on the storm.
In South Carolina, traffic was bumper-to-bumper as people fled on Interstate 26, the main artery out of Charleston. Gasoline was hard to come by, with at least half a dozen stations along the coast out of fuel and long lines at others.
"We're staying because we have to board the house up," Buff Schwab said as she wheeled in a cooler filled with food she purchased the night before at a local supermarket.
Storm shutters were closed on a number of palatial homes overlooking Charleston's Civil War-era Battery along the water. Carriage tours made their way down streets that were largely empty of traffic.
"I'm worried. I've gotten a lot of calls to go home," Schwab said of her relatives in North Carolina. "It is what it is and we're going to sit it out and put a lot of food in the crock pot."
In Florida, theme parks watched the storm closely and told customers to anticipate altered hours. Voluntary and mandatory evacuations were to take place Wednesday in the central part of the state.
"If you're able to go early, leave now," Gov. Rick Scott said.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Matthew — at one point a fierce Category 5 — will remain a powerful storm at least through Thursday night as it nears Florida. The Hurricane Center said fluctuation in intensity was expected and some strengthening is forecast in coming days as the storm crawls up the coast.
Forecasters said there was a danger of life-threatening storm surge inundation along Florida's east coast, much of which was under a hurricane watch or warning.
"When a hurricane is forecast to take a track roughly parallel to a coastline, as Matthew is forecast to do from Florida through South Carolina, it becomes very difficult to specify impacts at any one location," said senior hurricane specialist Lixion Avila.
President Barack Obama was briefed on the federal government's preparation at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's headquarters in Washington.
Now is the time to "hope for the best but we want to prepare for the worst," Obama said.
FEMA has deployed personnel to emergency operation centers in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. It's also positioning commodities and other supplies at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and in Albany, Georgia.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced plans starting Wednesday afternoon to evacuate a quarter million people — not including tourists — from the coast.
Haley said 315 buses were dispatched to two major coastal counties to help with evacuations. The National Guard and other law enforcement agents are mobilized, ready to ensure an orderly evacuation.
"We ask everybody to please be safe," Haley said, warning those thinking of staying put that they could be risking the life of a law enforcement officer if they had to be rescued later.
In Florida, a message on Walt Disney World's website Wednesday said all of its theme parks and resorts are "currently operating under normal conditions" as officials continue to monitor the storm. They advised those who plan on visiting Disney to monitor news outlets for the latest weather information.
Officials at SeaWorld in Orlando announced on its website that officials "anticipate altered hours due to Hurricane Matthew."
In Melbourne Beach, Florida, Carlos and April Medina wanted to get a jump start on the evacuation order issued for barrier islands. They moved their paddle board and kayak inside the garage. They took down pictures on the walls and wrapped the frames in blankets on their bed before hopping in a truck filled with legal documents, jewelry and a decorative carved shell that had once belonged to April Medina's great-grandfather. They headed west to Orlando.
Government officials are worried about complacency, especially in South Florida, which hasn't seen a major hurricane — a Category 3 or higher — in 11 years.
Hurricane Hermine hit the eastern Panhandle on Sept. 2 as a Category 1 storm, causing one death, storm surge damage to beachfront homes and downed trees and powerlines. That was the first hurricane to strike Florida since Wilma — a Category 3 — slammed into the coast in 2005. The 11-year lull between Hermine and Wilma was the longest on record for Florida.
Governors in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina declared states of emergency.
In rural Turbeville, South Carolina, farmer Jeremy Cannon said he waited too long last year and watched his soybeans and cotton crops slowly drown as 20 inches of rain fell on his fields. This year he is taking no chances with Hurricane Matthew and will harvest about a week early.
This is the third year in a row weather is threatening the livelihood of this 35-year-old fourth generation farmer. Drought hurt him badly in 2014, and the massive flood last year set him back $800,000, which he didn't come close to covering through insurance and some aid from the state.
"The Lord says pray without ceasing. And that's what I've been doing — in the fields, near the barn — just praying all the time. I don't want to find out what I'll have to do if I get wiped out for another year," Cannon said.
Kay reported from Miami Beach. Associated Press reporters Jeffrey Collins, Jack Jones and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina; Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina; Mike Schneider in Melbourne Beach, Florida; and Freida Frisaro in Miami contributed to this report.
Follow Terry Spencer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/terryspen
His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/terry-spencer
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