The hurricane remained a powerful Category 3 storm but its sustained winds strengthened overnight from 115 mph to 125 mph. Forecasters warned that it could once again become a Category 4 storm as it neared Florida’s Atlantic Coast and that could lead to “life-threatening” situations.
As of 5 a.m., the hurricane was about 255 miles southeast of West Palm Beach, according to the National Hurricane Center.
“The eye of Matthew should pass near Andros Island and New Providence in the northwestern Bahamas early this morning, then pass near Grand Bahama Island late today, and move very close to the east coast of the Florida peninsula tonight through Friday night,” the center said.
After Matthew pummeled Haiti on Tuesday — causing at least 10 deaths there and six more in the Dominican Republic and other parts of the Caribbean, officials said, with the full toll still unknown — it weakened slightly.
Officials, including President Obama in Washington and governors in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, urged residents to take the storm seriously — pleas that came as Matthew was poised to be the most powerful storm to make landfall in the country in more than a decade.
“If Matthew directly impacts Florida, there will be massive destruction that we haven’t seen in years,” Gov. Rick Scott (R) said during a news conference.
Matthew was expected to approach the east coast of Florida on Thursday evening, hours after tropical storm conditions could begin in the state, and it could remain at a Category 3 or become even stronger by that point, the National Hurricane Center said.
If Matthew is a Category 3 or stronger hurricane when it hits Florida, it would be the first major hurricane to make landfall in the country since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. In early September, Hurricane Hermine touched down in Florida’s Panhandle as a Category 1 storm and then quickly weakened.
“This is a serious storm,” President Obama said after he was briefed on preparations for Matthew at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington. He added: “You can always rebuild, you can always repair property. You cannot restore a life if it is lost.”
Obama had been scheduled to visit Florida for two events Wednesday, but he scrapped that trip due to the storm and went to FEMA for the briefing instead, according to the White House. He warned that the storm “could have a devastating effect” even in areas spared the full force of the hurricane, and asked residents to pay attention to local leaders and follow evacuation orders.
“Regardless if there’s a direct hit or not, the impacts will be devastating,” Scott said during another briefing on Florida’s preparations. “I cannot emphasize it enough that everyone in our state must prepare now for a direct hit.”
Scott closed state offices in more than two dozen Florida counties and said he activated 500 members of the Florida National Guard with another 6,000 ready to be deployed as needed. Some mandatory evacuations were in place Wednesday in Florida, along with voluntary evacuations in the Lucie, Flagler and Duval counties that are home to more than 1.2 million people. A spokesman for the governor told the Associated Press that about 1.5 million people were being asked to evacuate.
Forecasts have shifted Matthew’s track closer and closer to Florida’s populous east coast, which could bring tropical storm or hurricane effects there Thursday and into Friday. After that, the storm is expected to move up the East Coast, but its precise path remained unclear.
Residents flocked to their local Publix in south Florida to scrape the aisles clean of canned soup, peanut butter, bread and water bottles. Even as they prepared, people who have lived through storms before said they were worried about the effect.
“We’re right by the ocean,” Jordan Guadalupe, an 18-year-old juice-maker, said Wednesday. “On a scale of 1 to 10, my level of concern is at a solid eight.”
Guadalupe said his family in Lauderdale by the Sea has put up storm shutters and bought sandbags, but they were having trouble finding the supplies needed to ride out the storm. He said that his family lived inland during Hurricane Wilma, which he called “devastating.”
Others were looking at a silver lining. Lera Gavin, 26, said that Matthew would be her first hurricane. If the storm wasn’t too bad, she said, she might join friends at the Mondrian South Beach Hotel — which has backup generators — where they are throwing “hurricane parties.”
Further north, about two miles outside the hurricane watch zone near the Miami-Dade Broward County line, residents and business owners were also gearing up for Matthew’s wrath. Around 5 p.m., Sergio Rojas had already boarded up half of the floor to ceiling glass walls of Sunny Isles Fine Wine & Spirits at 17100 Collins Avenue. The 42-year-old liquor store owner moved from Los Angeles to Sunny Isles Beach in 2007, two years after Wilma.
Even though most of Matthew’s blunt force will be felt further north Florida’s coast, Rojas doesn’t want to take any chances. He said he bought his plywood in the early afternoon. “This will be my first hurricane,” Rojas said.
At a Home Depot near Stirling Road in Hollywood, two employees secured seven sturdy pieces of plywood to the roof of Alex Ozenaski’s black Hyundai sedan. “It took us about three hours to get in and out,” he said.
Inside the store, customers jockeyed for the remaining slivers of wood. Elvis David, a Home Depot sales associate, said the store would likely sell out its last pieces before closing at 10 p.m. “The chaos has been nonstop since we opened at six o’clock in the morning,” David said. “It’s been hectic all day.”
In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) activated the South Carolina National Guard and said the state would evacuate coastal communities and close all coastal schools. Even before mandatory evacuations went into effect in the state, roads were already jammed as people tried to leave the region.
Haley evacuated Charleston and Beaufort counties on Wednesday afternoon, and she said other areas were expected to evacuate Thursday morning.
“For those of you that are wondering whether you should leave or not, I again will tell you that if you do not leave, you are putting a law enforcement officer or a National Guardsman’s life on the line when they have to go back and get you,” she said.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed an executive order declaring an emergency for a week in 13 of the state’s coastal counties, noting that the storm could cause “extensive flooding, fallen trees and the closure of numerous roads,” essentially rendering much of the region impassable.
“The safety of Georgians is our first priority, and we urge residents in these areas to remain calm but vigilant as they prepare for potential impact,” Deal said in a statement.
The North Carolina emergency declaration covered 66 counties in parts of eastern and central North Carolina. Gov. Pat McCrory (R) said that includes areas that have just recently seen substantial flooding and remain saturated.
Schools throughout the south closed their doors and said more closures and cancellations were expected throughout the week.
In Florida, public schools in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties all said they would close Thursday and Friday, as would others heading further north past the Gold Coast and up into southern Georgia. The Marine Corps said it was evacuating recruits training at its Parris Island, S.C., base due to the storm.
Universities also announced plans to cancel classes. The University of South Carolina closed its Columbia campus on Wednesday and said it expected to remain closed through the rest of the week; the College of Charleston said that it was closing its campuses “until further notice.”
The University of Florida said it would cancel classes Friday. Florida International University in Miami and the University of Central Florida in Orlando — two of the country’s biggest public colleges — said they would be closed through Friday and Saturday, respectively. Central Florida also said it was postponing a football game against Tulane scheduled for Friday, bumping it back to next month.
Several other universities have high-profile games scheduled in the region this weekend, but it was unclear how the storm would impact them.
The University of Florida said it was still hosting Louisiana State on Saturday for a football game as planned, and the University of Miami also said it was still planning to host Florida State for an in-state rivalry game on Saturday night. The University of South Carolina said it was monitoring the storm ahead of its scheduled Saturday night game against Georgia.
Airlines also announced that they would waive fees for travelers changing flights due to the storm. Delta, JetBlue and American Airlines all said they were letting people change flights scheduled in the coming days through much of the Southeast U.S. as well as the Bahamas and Caribbean.
American Airlines said it was canceling all Thursday flights through the three South Florida airports — in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach — as well as flights through Orlando’s airport after 5:30 p.m. that day.
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center said it would close on Wednesday at 1 p.m. and remain closed through Friday.
A spokesman for SpaceX said that the company was “working with our partners at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to safeguard facilities and personnel in the potentially affected areas.” United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that also launches from Cape Canaveral, also said it was actively preparing for the storm.
Even the Mouse House was on high alert. Walt Disney World said in a statement Wednesday that while it was operating under normal conditions Wednesday, it was monitoring the hurricane. SeaWorld also warned customers that it expected “altered hours” due to the storm.
Jason Samenow, Angela Fritz, Christian Davenport, Lori Aratani and Susan Hogan in Washington; Francisco Alvarado in Miami Beach, Fla.; and Dustin Waters in Charleston, S.C., contributed to this report.
This story, first published at 9:31 a.m., has been updated throughout the day.