People boarded up beach homes, schools closed and officials ordered evacuations along the East Coast as Hurricane Matthew tore through the Bahamas and took aim at Florida.
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. Petrol 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,” Ms 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,” Governor Rick Scott said.
The National Hurricane Centre 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 Centre 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 (Fema) headquarters in Washington.
Now is the time to “hope for the best but we want to prepare for the worst,” Mr Obama said.
Fema has deployed personnel to emergency operation centres in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. It is also positioning commodities and other supplies at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and in Albany, Georgia.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley announced plans starting on Wednesday afternoon to evacuate a quarter million people – not including tourists – from the coast.
Ms Haley said 315 buses were dispatched to two major coastal counties to help with evacuations.
The National Guard and other law enforcement agents are mobilised, ready to ensure an orderly evacuation.
“We ask everybody to please be safe,” Ms 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 on 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, jewellery 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 has not seen a major hurricane – a Category 3 or higher – in 11 years.
Hurricane Hermine hit the eastern Panhandle on September 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.