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Hundreds of thousands of people leave Charleston ahead of hurricane

CHARLESTON – An estimated 250,000 residents evacuated from Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina, on Wednesday, said Kim Stenson, the director of South Carolina Emergency Management. She said as many as 200,000 people will leave Thursday.

It was time to gas up the car and evacuate coastal cities Wednesday as powerful Hurricane Matthew headed through the Bahamas toward Florida.

Many residents heeded evacuation orders and hit the highways, trying to get out of the way of the Category 3 storm that could hit Florida on Thursday night.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned residents they had 24 hours to get ready, or better yet, get going.

The National Hurricane Center isn’t saying that Hurricane Matthew will make landfall in Florida, just that the center of the storm will get “very near” the Atlantic Coast, possibly as a Category 4 hurricane.

Even if Matthew doesn’t come ashore, Florida will be hit by strong winds and heavy rain, Scott said.

Residents in other states were also evacuating. Areas of Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina had asked or ordered people to leave and were redirecting traffic on interstates to one-way travel.

Matthew has already killed 10 people and carved a trail of destruction in several Caribbean countries. Next in its path: the Bahamas and United States.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Matthew hurled 120 mph (195 kph) winds as it churned toward the Bahamas, the National Hurricane Center said.

The hurricane was about 70 miles (115 kilometers) south of Long Island, Bahamas, and 400 miles (644 kilometers) from West Palm Beach, Florida.

President Barack Obama warned Americans in the storm’s path to pay attention and take any evacuation orders seriously. He said if the core of the storm strikes Florida, it could have a “devastating effect.”

Florida braces for ‘direct hit’

Scott declared a state of emergency for the entire state. He warned that a direct hit by Matthew could lead to “massive destruction” on a level unseen since Hurricane Andrew devastated the Miami area in 1992.

Brevard County commissioners ordered one of the state’s first mandatory evacuations for residents of Merritt Island and other barrier islands. Residents must leave starting at Wednesday afternoon.

Florida is not experiencing any gas supply or distribution shortages as Hurricane Matthew approaches, Gov. Rick Scott told reporters Wednesday. “We have heard of some individual stations (being) short, but in no area of the state are we short of fuel,” the governor said, adding that the state has placed fuel in some areas.

State offices will be closed Thursday and Friday in 26 Florida counties, Scott said.

Palm Beach residents already cleared many grocery store shelves ahead of the storm.

In Jupiter, resident Randy Jordan told CNN affiliate WPEC people were pushing and shoving their way through the local Home Depot to buy supplies ranging from batteries to flashlights.

“The vibe on the street this morning is pre-panic,” Jordan said. “By tomorrow, it should just be a brawl.”

Residents still had a sense of humor. Olivia A. Cole posted a photo on Twitter of an empty grocery shelf, save for eight cans of a soup typically enjoyed in another region of the country. “South Florida wants to survive #HurricaneMatthew. But we’d rather die than eat clam chowder,” Cole joked.

Mandatory evacuations South Carolina

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley gave evacuation orders for the coastal counties of Charleston and Beaufort starting Wednesday.

The threat in South Carolina is so severe that schools and government offices in 25 counties are closed Wednesday. Some schools will double as evacuation shelters.

In addition to the evacuation orders for Charleston and Beaufort counties Wednesday afternoon, Haley ordered Horry and Georgetown counties to evacuate by Thursday morning.

The South Carolina Department of Transportation has started changing the directions of traffic lanes to accommodate the exodus of people leaving coastal cities like Charleston.

Lanes on Interstate 26 were reversed Wednesday afternoon to help residents flee.

North Carolina playing it by ear

Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency for more than half the state’s 100 counties. The changing forecast now predicts the storm won’t have as great an impact on the state as once feared, and Matthew might even turn around before it gets to North Carolina.

“We’re just going to have to play it by ear and have our resources ready,” the governor said Wednesday afternoon.

Officials are still concerned areas in eastern North Carolina that were recently flooded will see drenching rains from Matthew.

Authorities in Hyde County have canceled a mandatory evacuation order for Ocracoke Island, a popular tourist destination.

The University of North Carolina-Wilmington has also ordered students to evacuate no later than noon Thursday.

Georgia governor: ‘Remain calm but vigilant’

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has declared a state of emergency in 13 counties on or near the Atlantic Coast.

“We urge residents in these areas to remain calm but vigilant as they prepare for potential impact,” Deal said.