The strongest storm system to threaten the United States in a decade roared toward landfall on Florida on Thursday, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes as the deadly hurricane took direct aim at Florida's Atlantic shores and threatened further damage up the East Coast.
Hurricane Matthew tore through Haiti this week, causing at least 10 deaths there and six more elsewhere, before moving onto the Bahamas in its last stop before heading to Florida.
While the storm had weakened at one point, by Thursday morning it strengthened again and surged to a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds near 140 mph. Forecasters said it will likely remain a Category 4 hurricane as it approaches Florida's coast.
In Florida, all eyes looked east as the storm slowly approached. Matthew is expected to begin strafing the state late Thursday and grind its way north on today, according to the National Hurricane Center, though rain and tropical storm conditions began sweeping through South Florida on Thursday morning. By early Saturday, hurricane conditions could extend into Georgia and South Carolina, the center forecast.
More than 1.5 million Floridians live in evacuation zones, according to Governor Rick Scott. Late Wednesday, Scott asked President Obama to declare a federal emergency in Florida due to the storm's ''potential to bring devastating impacts to millions of Floridians''. In total, more than 2 million people were under evacuation orders from Florida to South Carolina.
Scott has declared a state of emergency in Florida - as have his counterparts in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina - and across the state, residents hunkered down as the storm approached. He pleaded with residents in evacuation areas to leave as soon as possible, using increasingly grim and blunt language in describing the danger posed by the storm.
''This is serious,'' Scott said during a briefing Thursday morning. ''This storm will kill you. Time is running out.''
Schools closed their doors and campuses, universities rescheduled football games and other events, government offices shuttered for the rest of the week. Airlines cancelled more than 1,000 flights scheduled to travel through the state.
Floridians either fled their homes or huddled with supplies after making the customary last-minute trips for bottled water, bread and peanut butter. Batteries were gathered, plywood erected and shutters lowered throughout the state. Some people headed to stay with friends or family in safer structures, while others planned ''hurricane parties'' to spend the hours on lockdown.
Scott also activated 1,500 Florida National Guard members, with another 5,000 ready to be deployed as needed.
''Get out now if you are in an area with evacuations,'' Scott said in a statement. He added, ''If you make a decision not to leave before the storm, we cannot send someone to save you because you made a bad decision. Don't wait until you lose power. You need to leave before it is too late.''
Forecasters were similarly foreboding in issuing dire warnings for what they called a ''life-threatening'' storm, the first major hurricane to hit the United States since Wilma in 2005. (Last month, Hurricane Hermine slammed into Florida's Gulf Coast before quickly being downgraded to a tropical storm.)
In one bulletin, the National Weather Service said gusting wind could have ''possible devastating impacts'' on the eastern coast of central Florida and outlined possible consequences: ''Structural damage to sturdy buildings, with complete roof and wall failures. Complete destruction of mobile homes. Damage may greatly accentuated by large airborne projectiles.''
And, in the most ominous suggestion of how long Matthew's impact could be felt: ''Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months.''
As people flooded the roads to get out of town, air travel was severely restricted by the looming storm. American Airlines cancelled all flights Thursday through the three South Florida airports - in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach - as well as flights through Orlando's airport after 5:30 pm.
Delta, Jet Blue and American Airlines all announced waivers allowing people to change flights traveling through the Southeast, Bahamas and Caribbean without paying any penalty.
Airlines cancelled more than 1,400 flights through the United States on Thursday, the overwhelming majority of them scheduled to go through airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando.
While Florida prepared for the country's first brush with Matthew, other states were also getting ready for the storm to rake across their communities.
South Carolina governor Nikki Haley evacuated Charleston and Beaufort counties - home to more than half a million people - and said other evacuations were going to follow Thursday. She also stressed that those who ignore the evacuation orders could wind up putting others at risk.
''For those of you that are wondering whether you should leave or not, I again will tell you that if you do not leave, you are putting a law enforcement officer or a National Guardsman's life on the line when they have to go back and get you,'' she said during a briefing.
Authorities in South Carolina said a driver there was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies after a confrontation along an evacuation route, according to the Associated Press. Police said the driver knocked down traffic cones at a checkpoint and drove off, and when sheriff's deputies caught up with him he began shooting at deputies, who returned fire. None of the deputies were injured, but four have been placed on leave.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared an emergency in 13 of the state's coastal communities, warning that the storm's impact there could render travel essentially impossible in much of that area. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory also declared an emergency in 66 counties in the eastern and central parts of that state, where residents are still recovering from heavy flooding just last month.
Obama scrapped two planned events in Florida on Wednesday and visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency's headquarters in Washington for a hurricane briefing instead. He urged residents to be ready and pay attention to warnings from authorities.
''I want to make sure that everybody is paying attention to your local officials,'' he said during remarks after his briefing. ''If there is an evacuation order in your community, you need to take it seriously. Even if you don't get the full force of the hurricane, we are still going to be seeing tropical force winds, the potential for a storm surge, and all of that could have a devastating effect.''