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Deadly Hurricane Matthew nearing coast of Florida

(RNN) – As it inches closer to Florida’s palmy eastern coast, Hurricane Matthew threatens to be one of the most dangerous storms in recent history.

The hurricane has already killed at least 283 in Haiti, the Associated Press reported. The Bahamas faced the brunt of the storm as it approached the mainland United States. 

Evacuations have been ordered for almost 2 million people in the path of the dangerous storm, and President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Florida.

The National Hurricane Center said preparations to protect life and property should be “rushed to completion” as the storm pushes closer to a likely U.S. landfall. 

“If you need to evacuate and haven’t, evacuate,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said. “Time is running out.”

The Category 3 storm is about 45 miles east of Vero Beach, FL, packing maximum sustained winds of 120 mph. It is moving to the northwest at 14 mph.

The latest forecast track has the dangerous hurricane hugging or even making landfall on the Florida Atlantic coast, brushing along Georgia and South Carolina before veering into the Atlantic Ocean.

People as far north as North Carolina are preparing for possible Matthew impacts.

“This could be an extremely disastrous storm for so many,” said Dr. Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center, on Thursday. 

“Unfortunately, this is going to kill people,” Scott warned Thursday.

Storm surges from Sebastian Inlet, FL, to Edisto Beach, SC, border, including portions of the St. Johns River, may range from 7 to 11 feet. In addition, forecasters anticipate rainfall totals of 4 to 8 inches in coastal Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, with isolated amounts of 12 inches. 

Hurricane-force winds extend as far as 40 miles from the center, and tropical-storm strength winds extends up to 160 miles.

A hurricane warning is in effect for the northwestern Bahamas, including Grand Bahama Island; Boca Raton, FL to South Santee River, SC and Lake Okeechobee, FL. 

A tropical storm warning is in effect for Ocean Reef to south of Boca Raton, FL; the Anclothe River to the Suwannee River; and north of South Santee River, SC to Surf City, NC. 

As of Thursday morning, 13 counties in Florida were under some sort of evacuation orders, with areas of at least five counties under mandatory evacuation orders. Evacuation orders affect 1.5 million people in Florida.

Scott has activated 2,500 members of the Florida National Guard, and another 4,000 members are ready to be activated, Scott said to help with evacuations and sheltering.

Governors of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina also have issued mandatory and voluntary evacuations.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 30 counties, and Thursday he urged mandatory evacuation of six coastal counties – everyone east of Interstate 95. The state is updating a map of shelters for those evacuating.

More than 3,000 evacuation opportunities exist for people evacuating in Georgia.

“I urge Georgians in the affected areas to remain calm, be prepared and make informed, responsible decisions as we continue to monitor Hurricane Matthew’s path,” Deal said.

The Georgia Department of Public Safety tweeted it is closing eastbound ramps on I-16 from Savannah to Dublin, GA, preparing to convert the lanes to westbound only to facilitate evacuations.

Savannah, GA, Mayor Eddie DeLoach urged people to take the storm seriously, WTOC reported. “Hurricane Matthew is a storm not to be messed with. If you decide to ride it out, do not expect us to be there to help you,” he said. “We will not risk the lives of our emergency responders to save those who refused to heed this evacuation call.”

A mandatory evacuation was ordered for Tybee Island, GA, according to WTOC, and all three islands and low-lying areas east of the Wilmington River were urged to evacuate beginning Thursday morning.

The Florida governor encouraged people to not behave like sightseers on the beaches as the storm approaches. “Do not surf,” Scott said. 

Tolls on toll roads are being waived in areas with evacuation orders, the governor’s office said. 

The American Red Cross has a list of available shelters for those evacuating, and the Florida State Emergency Response Team has a list of 48 shelters and 13 special needs shelters.

Florida’s most famous theme parks, Walt Disney World, Seaworld and Universal Orlando, all closed early Thursday and remain closed Friday. 

Flights at Miami International Airport were expected to “gradually resume” Friday after airlines canceled flights on Thursday, the airport tweeted.

Fort Lauderdale- Hollywood International Airport closed Thursday ahead of the storm, according to its Twitter account. It said it expected to resume flights on Friday. 

Flights at Orlando International were suspended by 8 p.m. Thursday. The airport said it didn’t anticipate flights to resume until Saturday. 

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley ordered evacuations of several counties, including certain parts of Berkeley, Beufort, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester, Georgetown, Horry and Jasper counties, and those evacuations may expand.

Haley said, in a Thursday press conference, as of 6 a.m., 175,000 people had evacuated, but she said that number is not enough, WMBF reported.

“We ask everybody, please be safe. And for those of you wondering whether you should leave or not, I again will tell you, if you do not leave, you are putting a law enforcement officer’s or National Guardsman’s life on the line when they have to go back and get you,” Haley said.

Eastbound lanes were reversed, making them westbound along sections of I-26 in South Carolina on Wednesday, WCSC reported. The lane reversals are put in place to facilitate coastal evacuations.

The South Carolina National Guard has been activated, and schools and government offices in 25 counties were closed. The state said 60 shelters were open, three of which are pet-friendly, and 27 were on standby.

Even far from the Atlantic coast, school districts in Florida closed early Wednesday and will remain closed Thursday and Friday, and University of Central Florida and Tulane have postponed their Friday evening football game until Nov. 5.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory also issued a state of emergency for 66 eastern and central North Carolina counties, though currently the storm track has shifted east, which would lessen the impact on the state.

“Parts of the cone could be impacting North Carolina,” McCrory said. He said the models are less reliable once the storm reaches Georgia: “That’s what’s causing me to sleep not so well at night.”

The governor urged North Carolinians not to let their guard down. “We are going to be over prepared and hopefully underwhelmed,” he said.

A shift to the right or left by the storm could change the storm’s impact a great deal, the National Hurricane Center said.

President Barack Obama said, after a FEMA meeting Wednesday, that the federal government stands ready to help, and that people in the targeted area should “take this storm seriously.”

The last major hurricane to make landfall on Florida’s Atlantic Coast was Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which killed 23 people in the U.S. and caused $25.5 billion in damage to south Florida.

In the wake of the killer storm, Haiti postponed its presidential election, which was set for Oct. 9.

Hurricane Nicole formed in the Atlantic about 340 miles south of Bermuda, but it’s not expected to affect the coast. It continues to move west-northwest in the Atlantic. 

There are no current warnings or watches in effect for this storm. 

Nichole has maximum sustained winds of 105 mph and is stationary. 

Copyright 2016 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.

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