MELBOURNE, Fla. — Residents and tourists were streaming out of the coastal areas of southeast Florida and South Carolina Thursday as a strengthening Hurricane Matthew zeroes in for a late night landing on the U.S. mainland after hammering the Bahamas.
Packing maximum sustained winds of 125 mph, the storm was around 60 miles southeast of Nassau and around 255 miles southeast of West Palm Beach at 5 a.m. ET, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Forecasts said Matthew could into a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds between 130-156 mph.
The governors of Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina have declared states of emergency along the coast in anticipation of high-winds and life-threatening storm surges as high as 9 feet in some areas.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott asked President Obama to declare a pre-landfall emergency, activate 1,000 more National Guard members to join the 1,500 already positioned in the state and suspend all tolls in the affected areas, including the entire Florida Turnpike, Alligator Alley, Central Florida Expressway Authority and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.
"There is absolutely no excuse not to evacuate," Scott said during the briefing Wednesday at the Brevard County Emergency Operations Center in Rockledge, Fla. "If you are able to leave early, go now," before evacuation-related traffic tie-ups get worse.
"We can rebuild your home. We can rebuild your business," Scott said. "We cannot rebuild your life."
"While the strength of Matthew will fluctuate as it approaches the U.S. coast ... it will remain a powerful and dangerous hurricane with threats from storm surge flooding and high winds," said AccuWeather hurricane expert Dan Kottlowski.
"Even if the eye of Hurricane Matthew remains just offshore, gusts to hurricane force can occur along the immediate Atlantic coast along with storm surge flooding," he added, AccuWeather reported.
The hurricane, which swept northward through the Caribbean, has left at least 16 people dead. Officials in Haiti raised the death toll to 10 and the number is expected to further increase as aid workers reach remote areas. The storm also pounded parts of Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
The Category 3 storm is forecast to straddle Florida's coastline late Thursday into early Friday. The center is projected to scrape Brevard County's with hurricane-force winds that can down trees and scatter debris over a wide area to communities through Friday evening.