MELBOURNE, Fla. — Hurricane Matthew hammered parts of the Bahamas early Thursday, and was expected to intensify as it marched toward the Florida coast causing mass evacuations.
Packing maximum sustained winds of 125 mph, the storm was around 60 miles southeast of Nassau and around 255 miles southeast of West Palm Beach at 5 a.m. ET, according to the National Hurricane Center.
"While the strength of Matthew will fluctuate as it approaches the U.S. coast ... it will remain a powerful and dangerous hurricane with threats from storm surge flooding and high winds," said AccuWeather hurricane expert Dan Kottlowski.
"Even if the eye of Hurricane Matthew remains just offshore, gusts to hurricane force can occur along the immediate Atlantic coast along with storm surge flooding," he added, AccuWeather reported.
Hundreds of thousands of people evacuated coastal Florida and South Carolina as Matthew continued its approach to the U.S. after leaving at least 16 people dead across the Caribbean. Officials in Haiti raised the death toll to 10 and the number is expected to further increase as aid workers reach remote areas. The storm also pounded parts of Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
The Category 3 storm is forecast to straddle Florida's coastline overnight Thursday. It may make landfall in Brevard County, with the center projected to scrape Brevard's barrier islands as the storm moves northward. The storm is forecast to bring hurricane-force winds that can down trees and scatter debris over a wide area to communities late Thursday through Friday evening. It is also forecast to grow in intensity into a Category 4 storm with sustained winds between 130-156 mph.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott asked 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.
"This storm is serious and protecting life remains our number one priority, "Scott said Wednesday night in a statement.
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," he 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."
Onyanga-Omara reported from London. Contributing: Elizabeth LaFleur in Greenville, S.C. and John Bacon in McLean, Va.