President Barack Obama and state governors on Wednesday urged millions of people along the U.S. Southeast coast to evacuate and prepare for Hurricane Matthew as the potentially devastating storm took aim at Florida.
Matthew, currently pummeling the Bahamas and the fiercest Caribbean storm in nearly a decade, was forecast to begin lashing Florida with fierce winds, storm surges and heavy rain late on Thursday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
Federal emergency response teams took positions and stockpiled supplies in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, coordinating with state officials, Obama said after a briefing at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He urged people with questions about preparations for the hurricane to visit the government website www.ready.gov.
“I want to emphasize to the public - this is a serious storm,” Obama told reporters. “If there is an evacuation order in your community, you need to take it seriously.”
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has ordered an evacuation of more than a million people in coastal areas, about a quarter of whom were expected to comply, and Florida Governor Rick Scott urged those in vulnerable areas to evacuate early, even if orders had not yet been issued.
The governors in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia have all declared states of emergencies, enabling them to mobilize the National Guard.
“If you do not leave, you are putting a National Guardsmen’s or a law enforcement officer’s life on the line,” Haley said.
In South Carolina, where the effects of the storm were expected on Saturday morning, drivers reported gridlock that delayed traffic for hours, and the city of Charleston handed out sandbags and shovels.
Gasoline stations in the area posted “out of gas” signs as cars lined up to fill up the tank, but state officials said they were unaware of any significant shortages.
Matthew, a major Category Three storm, was bearing down on the Bahamas and aiming toward Florida with maximum sustained winds around 120 mph (195 kph) at of 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT), the hurricane center said, adding that it was too soon to predict where Matthew was likely to do the most damage along the U.S. coastline.
Florida’s governor activated an additional 300 members of the state National Guard on Wednesday, adding to 200 already summoned the day before.
Several school districts had canceled classes for Thursday and Friday, and some were releasing students early on Wednesday.
Florida residents on social media said they were stocking up on groceries and preparing their homes with hurricane shutters.
“The grocery store shelves are practically empty,” said Facebook user Sonja Smith of Boca Raton, Florida. “This morning I waited 35 minutes in line to get gas.”
(Additional reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Daniel Trotta and Tom Brown)