|(Photo: Leah Voss, AP)|
MELBOURNE, Fla. — Authorities in Florida and South Carolina began evacuating hundreds of thousands of people Wednesday as Hurricane Matthew roared closer to the U.S. after leaving a path of destruction across Haiti.
Tropical storm conditions are expected to reach parts of the Florida coast by early Thursday, intensifying to hurricane conditions in some areas later that day, the
National Hurricane Center warned. Matthew had top sustained winds of 120 mph, a Category 3 hurricane, Wednesday morning and could strengthen in coming days, the center said.
"People have less than 24 hours to prepare," Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned. "Having a plan could be the difference between life and death."
At least 11 deaths have been attributed to the powerful storm as it has marched across the
Caribbean this week, at least five of them in Haiti. With a key bridge washed out there, roads impassable and phone communications down, there was no further word on the dead or injured. At 11 a.m. ET Wednesday, the storm was about 105 miles south of the Bahamas, heading northwest at 12 mph.
Florida and South Carolina prepared to evacuate more than 1 million people as the U.S. braced for the most powerful storm to smash through the region in almost a decade.
More coverage of Hurricane Matthew
The entire east coast of Florida was under some kind of hurricane or tropical storm warning or watch. A warning means the storm conditions are expected within 36 hours, a watch means the conditions are possible within 48 hours. On Wednesday, the more sobering warning was expanded, now stretching from Miami to Daytona Beach.
"The combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded," the hurricane center warned. "There is a danger of life-threatening inundation."
Scott warned residents to prepare for power outages and evacuations. A mandatory evacuation of Brevard County's barrier island was set to begin at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Satellite Beach City Manager Courtney Barker announced on her city Facebook page. The evacuation also includes Merritt Island, low-lying flood-prone areas and mobile or manufactured homes.
"This is a unique and dangerous hurricane. People need to take evasive action," said Don Walker, spokesman for Brevard County's Emergency Management Office.
Scott urged people in threatened areas to leave as soon as possible.
"Regardless of if #Matthew directly hits our state, the impacts will be devastating and everyone must prepare," Scott tweeted.
South Carolina could see warnings and watches issued later Wednesday. Gov. Nikki Haley ordered evacuations for parts of Charleston and Beaufort counties beginning at 3 p.m., and said 315 buses were available to shuttle residents to Greenville, 200 miles to the northwest.
Wednesday morning's evacuation was estimated to include 250,000 people, not counting tourists. Hundreds of thousands more could be evacuated Thursday when plans call for evacuations in Georgetown and Horry counties.
Interstate 26 was already jammed Wednesday morning with vehicles fleeing Charleston and other coastal areas. Haley urged resident to stock up on gasoline before stations ran dry, and lines were long.
"If you do not leave, you are putting a law enforcement officer or national guardsman's life on the line when they have to go back and get you," Haley said. "So we are being extremely cautious."
Gallop reports for Florida Today in Melbourne, LaFleur for The Greenville (S.C.) News; Bacon for USA TODAY. Contributing: Rick Neale, Florida Today