MIAMI • Millions of residents on the south-east coast of the United States have fled inland, stocked up on groceries and queued for petrol as President Barack Obama and state governors urged people to evacuate or brace themselves for a potentially devastating Hurricane Matthew.
Matthew pummelled the Bahamas and took aim at the US as the fiercest Caribbean storm in nearly a decade, appearing likely to hit Florida with powerful winds, storm surges and heavy rain by yesterday, the US National Hurricane Centre said.
At least 69 people were killed in the Caribbean by the storm, with the death toll in Haiti alone rising to 65.
"I want to emphasise to the public - this is a serious storm," Mr Obama said after a briefing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "If there is an evacuation order in your community, you need to take it seriously."
Roadways in the states of Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina were jammed and gas stations and food stores ran out of supplies as Matthew approached, packing storm surges, heavy rain and sustained winds that accelerated overnight to around 205kmh.
The storm was predicted to strengthen to Category 4 en route to eastern Florida. Matthew is the strongest hurricane in the Caribbean since Felix struck in 2007.
Sinister face of monster storm
A satellite photo of Hurricane Matthew has gone viral over the Internet. The monster storm now has a monster image to match, after the creepy satellite photo was posted on Tuesday by Weather Channel senior meteorologist Stu Ostro as the hurricane made landfall in Haiti.
Seen through an infrared camera lens, the foreboding image resembling a human skull has been tweaked to show the storm in apocalyptic colours that accentuate the hurricane's eye.
CNN meteorologist Judson Jones explained that "scientists use colour tables to identify the strongest part of the storm". In the much-shared Twitter post, grey, black and red were chosen, reported CNN.
Federal emergency response teams had arrived in the four states, and were coordinating with state officials and stockpiling supplies, Mr Obama said. Governors in those states have declared states of emergency, enabling them to mobilise the National Guard.
"Everyone in our state must prepare now for a direct hit," Florida Governor Rick Scott said on Wednesday. "If Matthew directly impacts Florida, the destruction could be catastrophic and you need to be prepared." He requested that Mr Obama declare a pre-landfall emergency for Florida, which would bring in resources including food, water and waterproof coverings, and double the active National Guard force to 3,000.
Schools and airports across the region were to close and some hospitals evacuated patients, according to the local media. Hundreds of flights were cancelled in and out of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, Florida, industry website Flightaware.com said early yesterday.
Fuel stations posted "out of gas" signs after cars waited in long lines. "Every gas station I went to is empty," said motorist Charles Bivona in a Tweet late on Wednesday.
Shelters in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina opened their doors after the authorities urged locals to evacuate their homes.
But some were prepared to wait out the storm, stocking up on water, milk and canned goods, emptying grocery store shelves.
Residents and business owners boarded up windows with plywood and hurricane shutters and placed sandbags down to protect property against flooding.
In all, more than 12 million US residents were under hurricane watches and warnings, according to the Weather Channel.