CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Leaving more than, Hurricane Matthew steamed toward Florida with potentially catastrophic winds of 130 mph Thursday, and 2 million people across the Southeast were warned to flee inland.
It was the most powerful storm to threaten the U.S. Atlantic coast in more than a decade.
“This storm’s a monster,” Gov. Rick Scott warned as it started lashing the state with rain and wind around nightfall. He added: “I’m going to pray for everybody’s safety.”
Officials say winds are picking up and thousands are without power in Florida as Hurricane Matthew approaches.
The National Hurricane Center says the eye of Matthew is northwest of Grand Bahama Island, about 70 miles east of West Palm Beach, Florida, and a wind gust of 50 mph has been recorded at Palm Beach International Airport.
Florida Power and Light says more than 30,000 customers -- about 24,000 in Palm Beach County alone -- are already without electricity.
Matthew is still a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph. It is moving northwest at 13 mph.
Hundreds of thousands of anxious people boarded up their homes and businesses and grabbed a few belongings to flee inland as Matthew roared toward the Southeast seaboard.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama declared an emergency in the state of Florida and later Thursday South Carolina, and ordered federal aid to supplement state, tribal, and local response efforts to Hurricane Matthew. Mr. Obama’s action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate efforts to alleviate the suffering caused by the hurricane. The directive applies to more than two dozen counties in Florida.
As it moved north in the evening, Matthew stayed about 100 miles or more off South Florida, sparing the 4.4 million people in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas from its most punishing effects.
“We were lucky this time,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said.
The hurricane was instead expected to blow ashore -- or come dangerously close to doing so -- early Friday north of West Palm Beach, which has about 1.1 million people, and then slowly push north for the next 12 hours along the Interstate 95 corridor, through Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Forecasters said it would then probably hug the coast of Georgia and South Carolina over the weekend before veering out to sea -- perhaps even looping back toward Florida in the middle of next week as a tropical storm.
Millions of people in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were told to evacuate their homes, and interstate highways were turned into one-way routes to speed the exodus. Florida alone accounted for about 1.5 million of those told to clear out.
“The storm has already killed people. We should expect the same impact in Florida,” the governor warned.
As people hurried for higher ground, authorities in South Carolina said a motorist died on Wednesday after being shot by deputies during an altercation along an evacuation route.
About 2 million people from Florida across Georgia to South Carolina were being encouraged to head inland and away from the most powerful storm to threaten the Atlantic coast in more than a decade. Matthew killed scores of people in the Caribbean as it sliced through Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas.
“This is a dangerous storm,” Scott said.
Police are patrolling St. Augustine, Florida, neighborhoods, announcing through a bullhorn that the area is in a mandatory evacuation zone as Hurricane Matthew approaches.
Dana Harrison, who lives on a barrier island across from Anastasia State Park, said she planned to wait out the storm with an out-of-town friend and her cat.
The 57-year-old Harrison said she used to live in St. Thomas and survived Hurricane Hugo in 1989, though the storm destroyed her house. She said she feels more secure in her current home.
The hurricane picked up wind speed as it closed in, growing from a possibly devastating Category 3 storm to a potentially catastrophic Category 4. Forecasters said it could dump up to 15 inches of rain in some spots and cause a storm surge of 9 feet or more.
They said the major threat to the Southeast would not be the winds -- which newer buildings can withstand -- but the massive surge of seawater that could wash over coastal communities along a 500-mile stretch from South Florida to Charleston, South Carolina, area.
The carrier George Washington, the amphibious ship Mesa Verde and the hospital ship Comfort have gotten underway from Norfolk but have not yet been tasked to provide any hurricane relief, reported CBS News correspondent David Martin. The Navy is anticipating a request from Southern Command which is running the military part of the relief effort.
Florida emergency officials said more than 3,000 people were already in 48 school-based shelters, mostly in coastal counties where evacuations both mandatory and voluntary were underway. Patients also were transferred from two Florida waterfront hospitals and a nursing home near Daytona Beach to safer locations.
Officials at Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld said they’ll be shutting down until the storm passes. Disney officials said on the company’s website Thursday afternoon that theme parks, water parks, Disney Springs, the miniature golf course and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex would close at 5 p.m. The theme park will remain closed through Friday.
“I never get time off. I’m a little sad,” tourist Amber Klinkel, 25, of Battle Creek, Michigan, lamented at Universal.
No. 18 Florida’s home game against LSU has been postponed.
The Southeastern Conference announced the decision on Thursday. The SEC said efforts would be made to reschedule the game, though the Gators and Tigers do not have a common open date.
Earlier Thursday, U.S. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana urged Florida Gov. Rick Scott to intervene in hopes that the Florida-LSU game would be either moved or rescheduled.
Up and down Florida’s east coast, storm preparations were in full swing Thursday, reported CBS News correspondent Manuel Bojorquez.
“This one, I just think we’re due. And that’s the reason I’m just trying to make sure everything’s good,” said one resident.
Store shelves were emptying. Gas stations were running out of fuel.
“I’ve already been to three gas stations that have shut down because they’re out of gas,” said another resident.
Deborah Whyte walked her dogs at Jupiter Beach Park on Thursday morning to check the surf.
“We boarded up our house and I boarded up my store” in Tequesta. “And we’re just hunkering down and waiting for it,” she said.
But others as far off as Georgia and South Carolina rushed to leave.
The Hunters have called coastal Georgia home for forty years. But Thursday, they were leaving it all behind,.
The Waters family who lives on Tybee Island is doing the same
“I grabbed the the boys baby books, I grabbed the wedding album, that a girlfriend of mine made us, couple of important papers and we’re outta here,” Mrs. Waters said.
Also on Tybee Island, home to Georgia’s largest public beach, Loren Kook loaded up his pickup truck with suitcases and a computer late Wednesday afternoon to hit the road to metro Atlanta.
“It seems like a lot of the longtime residents are staying,” said Kook, who moved to the coast four years ago. “I’ve never sat through a Category Whatever. I’ll watch it on TV.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal had urged more than 522,000 residents of six vulnerable coastal counties to voluntarily evacuate. An evacuation hasn’t been seen in 17 years in coastal Georgia. Part of its coast was under a hurricane warning.
The Fort Lauderdale airport shut down, and the Orlando airport planned to do so as well. Airlines canceled more than 3,000 flights Thursday and Friday, many of them in or out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
By midday, flight-tracking service FlightAware.com reported that nearly 1,500 flights within the U.S. had been scrapped, with the largest numbers at Fort Lauderdale and Miami. American Airlines, which has a major hub in Miami, was the hardest-hit carrier, followed by Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways. FlightAware says airlines have already canceled nearly 1,300 flights scheduled for Friday.
The storm is forecast to near the Florida coast starting Thursday night, potentially as a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds. Any slight deviation could mean landfall or it heading farther out to sea. Either way, forecasters say it will come close enough to wreak havoc along the lower part of the East Coast, dumping up to 15 inches of rain in some spots. Storm surge of 5 feet to 8 feet was expected along the coast from central Florida into Georgia.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said tropical storm conditions with rain and wind are first expected in the state later Thursday morning.
Some residents were defying the dire warnings about the huge storm heading their way later Thursday and early Friday.
Bike shop owner John Long, who lives in Cape Canaveral, said Thursday that he was glad he decided to stay put even though most of his neighbors in the RV park had evacuated.
“No second thoughts,” said Long, who was reached by telephone as he sat in a lawn chair outside his RV.
“I’m not going to downplay the scenario, but right now, there is absolutely no sign there’s a hurricane offshore,” adding that it was drizzling with a slight wind.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley planned to call for more evacuations Thursday, which would bring the total to about 500,000 people in the state. Florida urged or ordered about 1.5 million to leave the coast, said Jackie Schutz, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott. About 50,000 people were told to go in Georgia.
Early Thursday, Matthew’s center was about 215 miles southeast of West Palm Beach, Florida, and slogging ever closer at a 12 mph.