Hurricane Matthew gains strength, warning area expands as Florida braces for direct hit

RNN - - Powerful Hurricane Matthew is expected to intensify as it approaches Florida where millions of people are preparing for a direct hit.

The Category 3 storm is packing maximum sustained winds of 115 mph and is located about 295 miles southeast of West Palm Beach, FL, moving northwest at 10 mph.

Forecasters expect hurricane conditions to reach the hurricane warning area in the Sunshine State by Thursday night, and evacuations have begun.

"You better be ready for it, because if it turns at the last minute you're not going to have time to get ready," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said on Wednesday. "Basically we have to prepare as if it's going to hit everywhere from just north of Fort Lauderdale all the way to Jacksonville. We've got to prepare every one of these areas as if we were going to have a direct hit..."

The latest forecast track has it hugging the Florida Atlantic coast, and brushing along Georgia and South Carolina before veering into the Atlantic.

All of the Bahamas are under a hurricane warning along with Florida's Atlantic Coast from north of the Flagler/Volusia county line to Fernandina Beach, FL, and north of Golden Beach to Fernandina Beach.

A Hurricane Watch has been extended northward from the Savannah River to Edisto Beach, SC.

Tropical storm warnings are in effect from Chokoloskee to Golden Beach, FL, the Florida Keys from the Seven Mile Bridge east and Florida Bay.

Forecasters expect the storm to strengthen a bit over the next few days.

The National Hurricane Center says the hurricane is predicted to plow through the Bahamas before paralleling Florida's Atlantic coast Thursday evening.

Forecasters also expect the storm to closely brush the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas before moving east out into the Atlantic, though the most recent forecast track has Matthew moving further off shore Sunday and Monday.

States in Matthew's path started making preparations for the storm earlier this week and continue to update those plans, as a swath of the East Coast from south Florida north to North Carolina likely will be experiencing tropical storm and hurricane conditions.

President Barack Obama said, after a FEMA meeting, that the federal government stands ready to help, and that people in the targeted area should "take this storm seriously."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for all Florida counties on Tuesday, and low-lying areas along the coast in eight counties are being evacuated, according to Florida State Emergency Response Team.

Tolls on toll roads are being waived in areas with evacuation orders, the governor's office said.

"Right now, we expect to see impacts all the way along Florida's east coast, from the Keys all the way through Jacksonville," Scott said.

About 200 members of the Florida National Guard were activated Tuesday, and the Florida governor's office said about 300 guard members will be activated Wednesday, staging across the state and preparing to perform search and rescue missions or other missions as necessary.

Four school districts in Florida were closing early Wednesday and will remain closed Thursday and Friday.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 13 counties.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley ordered evacuations for Charleston and Beaufort counties on Wednesday morning and Georgetown and Horry counties on Thursday morning - as many as 1.1 million residents, according to WIS.

The process to reverse eastbound lanes to make them westbound along sections of I-26 in South Carolina began Wednesday, WCSC reported. The lane reversals are put in place to facilitate coastal evacuations.

"We ask everybody, please be safe.  And for those of you wondering whether you should leave or not, I again will tell you, if you do not leave, you are putting a law enforcement officer's or National Guardsman's life on the line when they have to go back and get you," Haley said.

The South Carolina National Guard has been activated, and schools and government offices in 25 counties will be closed starting Wednesday.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency Monday for central and eastern North Carolina, and ordered evacuations for low-lying areas in the state.

"This morning we received some good news that Matthew's track has moved slightly off shore, but we remain cautiously optimistic and are prepared to respond at a moment's notice," McCrory said, according to WBTV. "This is a large storm and its impacts could be felt well inland. It is still extremely important for residents in the eastern parts of the state to stay informed in case you need to evacuate and always follow the directions of your local emergency officials."

A shift to the right or left by the storm could change the storm's impact a great deal, the National Hurricane Center said.

The last major hurricane to make landfall on Florida's Atlantic Coast was Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which killed 23 people in the U.S. and caused $25.5 billion in damage to south Florida.

Hurricane Matthew has been blamed for 10 deaths in the Caribbean, according to CNN, and more than 2,700 families have been affected by the storm.

On Wednesday, Haiti postponed its presidential election which was set for Oct. 9.

In the meantime, Tropical Storm Nicole continues to move west-northwest in the Atlantic with 60 mph winds. It is not expected to threaten land. The storm is located 490 miles south of Bermuda.

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