Hurricane Matthew marches closer to U.S. forces mass evacuations

Evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people was underway Wednesday in Florida and South Carolina as Hurricane Matthew roared closer to the U.S. after leaving 16 people dead and carving a path of destruction across Haiti.

The impending weather prompted Florida Gov. Rick Scott to ask President Obama to declare a pre-landfall emergency, activate 1,000 more National Guard members to join the 1,500 already positioned in the state and suspend all tolls in the affected areas, including the entire Florida Turnpike, Alligator Alley, Central Florida Expressway Authority and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.

“Based on the most recent forecast I received from the National Hurricane Center, the eye of Hurricane Matthew is going to be much closer to Florida,” Scott said Wednesday night in a statement. “There are hurricane watches and warnings along Florida’s entire east coast and we now have Tropical Storm warnings on Florida’s Gulf Coast. This storm is serious and protecting life remains our number one priority.”

During a briefing with reporters earlier Wednesday, Scott also implored those who had been ordered to evacuate to do so.

“There is absolutely no excuse not to evacuate,” Scott said during the briefing at the Brevard County Emergency Operations Center in Rockledge, Fla. “If you are able to leave early, go now,” before evacuation-related traffic tie-ups get worse.”

“We can rebuild your home. We can rebuild your business,” Scott said. “We cannot rebuild your life.”

The governor added that the state is “preparing for the worst, hoping for the best and not taking any chances.

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 115 mph, a Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale, Wednesday evening and is forecast to strengthen in coming days, the center said.

“People have less than 24 hours to prepare,” Scott said. “Having a plan could be the difference between life and death.”

Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina declared states of emergency ahead of the most powerful storm to rock the Atlantic basin since Hurricane Felix killed more than 100 people, most in Nicaragua, in 2007.

“Residents and visitors should take evacuation orders seriously,” Federal Emergency Management Agency chief W. Craig Fugate said. “This is a major hurricane that has the potential to cause significant harm to life and property.”

. Wednesday evening the storm was about 325 miles southeast of West Palm Beach heading northwest at 10 mph. The storm had weakened but was expected to strengthen later Wednesday and on Thursday, according to the National Hurricane Center.