THE deadliest hurricane in years is heading straight for the US coast with two million people warned to evacuate right now.
Hurricane Matthew, which has already claimed 26 lives after smashing Haiti is marching closer toward Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.
As authorities urged people to be prepared, a mass exodus not seen in more than a decade is unfolding with hundreds of thousands stocking up or getting out.
The dangerous and life-threatening Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 190km/h has passed through the Bahamas and is expected to be enter Florida’s Atlantic coast by Thursday evening. Forecasters expect it will intensify and again become a Categroy 4 storm as it approaches Florida.
The fiercest Caribbean storm in nearly a decade, also whipped Cuba with 230km/h winds and torrential rains on Tuesday, pummelling towns and destroying livestock, crops and homes.
In the United States, Florida Governor Rick Scott warned residents to prepare for a possible direct hit that could be catastrophic.
Matthew has already caused severe flooding and killed four people in the Dominican Republic as well as at least 22 in Haiti.
WAIT AND WATCH
Australian-born Darren Surch is among those who have decided to wait and see what path the hurricane takes.
Mr Surch, who lives in Charleston, South Carolina with his wife and three children, told news.com.au he had booked a hotel 120 miles (193km) inland for the weekend “just in case”.
He said around a third to half of the port city had already left and those who were staying were well prepared as were authorities.
While not moving for the moment, Mr Surch said he wouldn’t hesitate to evacuate if it was clear the city was going to be directly in the storm’s path.
“It’s very slow moving,” he said.
“If the storm surge moves inland we will go but we won’t evacuate just yet.”
He said he had spoken to some people who were genuinely concerned about the storm but so far the evacuation was orderly ahead of the storm’s expected arrival on Saturday morning US time.
PATH OF A DEADLY STORM
After moving past Haiti, Matthew rolled across a corner of Cuba and began pounding the southern Bahamas with heavy wind and rain.
Weakening a bit, it had maximum sustained winds of 185km/h by Wednesday night as it spun on a course expected to take it near the capital city of Nassau.
It was expected to regain strength overnight.
Forecasters said the storm could hit Florida — or come dangerously close — Thursday evening and then sideswipe the East Coast all the way up to the Carolinas over the weekend.
As the US braces for a hit, Florida Governor Rick Scott warned his state is facing its “biggest evacuation ever”.
Matthew has already hit Haiti, Cuba and the southern Bahamas with winds of 195km/h, and is expected to lash Florida late on Thursday before barrelling towards Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
President Obama also urged residents in the southeastern United States to prepare for the imminent arrival of Hurricane Matthew and to follow evacuation orders.
Speaking at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Obama said: “If you get an evacuation order, just remember that you can always rebuild. You can always repair property. You cannot restore a life if it is lost.”
Mr Scott said the “slow-moving storm”, is threatening almost the entire Atlantic coast of Florida.
“Everyone in our state must prepare now for a direct hit,” he said. “If Matthew directly impacts Florida, the destruction could be catastrophic and you need to be prepared.”
He said he remained unsure exactly how many people would be ordered to evacuate because it is left up to the counties, but said every county along the coast is focused on it and has been preparing.
South Florida hasn’t seen a major hurricane in 11 years.
Hurricane Hermine was the first to strike Florida since Wilma in 2005 when it hit the eastern Panhandle on September 2 as a Category 1 storm, causing one death, storm surge damage to beachfront homes and downed trees and powerlines.
That 11-year lull between storms hitting Florida was the longest on record.
The last storm to hit Florida from the Atlantic side was Katrina, which struck on its way to devastating the Gulf coast.
Authorities have stressed people need to be prepared and to pay attention to warnings and to take shelter at all costs.
In South Florida, lines at grocery stores were heavier than usual and some essentials were in short supply.
When Simone Corrado and her husband tried to buy water at their Publix in Davie near Fort Lauderdale, they mostly found empty shelves.
As the US braces for the killer storm, others are left counting the devastating cost.
Rescue workers reveal they have struggled to reach isolated towns on Haiti’s southern peninsula and are yet to learn the full extent of the death and destruction caused by Hurricane Matthew.
But with a key bridge washed out, roads impassable and phone communications down, the western tip of Haiti has been largely cut off a day after Matthew made landfall and there was no full accounting of the dead and injured in its wake.
The storm forced the Haitian government to postpone Sunday’s presidential election, in part because some schools and churches that are used as polling stations are serving as shelters and police can’t get election materials to some districts.
A new date for the vote was not expected to be announced until next week.
While the capital, Port-au-Prince, was essentially back to normal in many spots, there was still widespread flooding across southern Haiti.
“There’s absolutely nothing we can do to protect ourselves here,” motorcycle taxi driver Joseph Paul said as he watched torrents of brown water wash over a road and deluge his low-lying neighbourhood in Leogane.
“This storm was too much for us, and we are at its mercy.”
The hurricane blew across the sparsely populated eastern tip of Cuba on Tuesday night, destroying dozens of homes in Cuba’s easternmost city, Baracoa, and damaging hundreds.
However no fatalities have been reported so far.
— with Debra Killalea