Evacuations in 3 states as storm upgraded to Category 4 with 140 mph (225 kph) winds as it inches toward continental US.
WASHINGTON (AA) – More than 2 million people are expected to flee homes across the southeastern U.S. as Hurricane Matthew barrels toward the country on Thursday.
Recently upgraded to a Category 4 storm with sustained winds reaching 140 mph (225 kph), Matthew could be one of the worst storms to batter the U.S. in the past decade.
The last major hurricane, measured as a Category 3 or higher, was Wilma in 2005.
The storm has left a trail of devastation in the Caribbean. Haiti has been particularly hard hit with officials warning that the death toll there has already exceeded 130 victims and will likely rise.
Thousands have been displaced in a country that has yet to fully recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake
In the U.S., evacuations are underway in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
The White House urged Americans to take the approaching storm seriously, pointing to the widespread damage it has already inflicted.
"If there are those who doubt the intensity or severity of the storm, they need only look at the images that are coming back from Haiti," spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
"That is pretty good evidence of what people in the southeast could be facing," he added.
Later Thursday President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Florida that authorizes federal agencies to coordinate disaster response efforts.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott strongly warned residents to follow evacuation orders.
"Do not surf. Do not go on the beach. This will kill you," he said at a news conference. "Evacuate, evacuate, evacuate."
More than 3,000 people have already taken shelter at 60 centers across Florida, he said.
The Gulf Coast Hurricane Center warned that Matthew is likely to have "devastating impacts", and that "evacuations are not just a coastal event."
The center added that residents of mobile homes should heed evacuations orders because "strong winds will occur well inland from the coast".
The storm could make landfall in eastern Florida somewhere around West Palm Beach early Friday. Even if it skirts the coast, it could still wreak major havoc across the southeastern seaboard.
Matthew may reach South Carolina or Georgia as early as Saturday morning.
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