Officials have urged hundreds of thousands in Florida and South Carolina to move inland as Hurricane Matthew approaches. The weather system is believed to have cause at least 10 deaths in Haiti alone.
Tropical storm conditions were expected to reach the Florida coast by early Thursday, developing later into hurricane conditions, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Evacuations, some mandatory, were being put in place in about a dozen of Florida’s coastal counties.
“People have less than 24 hours to prepare,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said. “Having a plan could be the difference between life and death.”
Officials said the major hurricane had the potential to cause significant harm to life and property. The core of the hurricane was said to have remained intact and was likely to become stronger as it travelled over the ocean.
“This is a serious storm,” US President Barack Obama said Wednesday after he met officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Washington. “If there is an evacuation order in your community, you need to take it seriously.”
In advance of the hurricane making landfall, FEMA sent personnel to emergency centers in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Governors in all of those states have declared states of emergency, allowing them to mobilize the National Guard.
The major Category 3 storm had sustained winds of about 115 miles per hour (185 km per hour) on Wednesday night. The National Hurricane Center said it was too early to say where it would make landfall and cause the most damage.
Death and devastation on Haiti
Rescue workers in Haiti tried to assess the extent of the damage cause by Matthew there, struggling to reach isolated towns. Some 16 deaths are attributed to the storms in the Caribbean in the past week, with 10 of them in Haiti.
Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency Director Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste confirmed the number of dead on Wednesday, although the number is thought likely to rise. A major bridge was washed out, cutting off southern Haiti, and roads were rendered impassable.
“The storm ripped off roofs, teared down electricity posts, a lot of people were looking for shelter in churches and schools,” Doris Wasmeier, a German visitor in Port au Prince, told the DPA news agency.
“We don’t know how the situation in the south is. Communication has broken down and the most important bridge came down. The region is totally cut off,” said Wasmeier, who was an aid worker during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
After passing Haiti, Matthew barreled across part of Cuba before hitting the southern Bahamas.