The fiercest Caribbean storm in nearly a decade slammed into the Bahamas on Thursday, intensifying as it barrelled towards the south-east US coast where a mass exodus was under way with millions heeding warnings to flee inland.
Roadways in Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina were packed and gas stations and food stores ran out of supplies as Hurricane Matthew approached, packing sustained winds of about 185 km per hour, storm surges and heavy rain.
Matthew killed at least 102 people, the death toll in struggling Haiti alone rising to 98, officials said.
Many were killed by falling trees, flying debris and swollen rivers. Southern and western Haiti bore the brunt.
“Everyone in our state must prepare now for a direct hit,” Florida Governor Scott told a news conference in Tallahassee, adding, “If Matthew directly impacts Florida, the destruction could be catastrophic and you need to be prepared.”
The four states in the hurricane’s path declared states of emergency enabling their governors to mobilise the National Guard. Shelters in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina opened their doors after authorities, along with President Barack Obama, urged locals to evacuate their homes.
Federal emergency response teams were coordinating with officials in all four states and stockpiling supplies, Obama said. Scott requested that Obama declare a pre-landfall emergency for Florida, which would bring resources including as food, water and waterproof coverings and double the active National Guard force to 3,000.
Schools and airports across the region were closed on Thursday and some hospitals evacuated patients, according to local media.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the storm whipped Cuba and Haiti with 230 kph winds and torrential rains, pummeling towns and destroying livestock, crops and homes .
The devastation in Haiti prompted authorities to postpone a presidential election.
Local authorities and international aid workers still lack a clear picture of the storm’s destruction.