Hurricane Matthew closes in on Florida

- A strong Hurricane Matthew is steaming toward Florida. The category 4 storm has hundreds of thousands of people across the Southeast boarded up their homes and fled inland to escape the most powerful storm to threaten the Atlantic coast in more than a decade.

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The hurricane picked up steam as it closed in, growing from a Category 3 to a Category 4 storm by late Thursday morning. It barreled over the Bahamas and was expected to scrape nearly the entire length of Florida's Atlantic coast beginning Thursday evening. From there, Matthew is expected to push its way just off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina before veering off to sea.

Click here for the latest track and forecast for Hurricane Matthew

President Barack Obama has declared an emergency in the state of Florida and has ordered federal aid to supplement state, tribal, and local response efforts to Hurricane Matthew. Obama's action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate efforts to alleviate the suffering caused by the hurricane. The directive applies to more than two dozen counties in Florida.

Two million people across the Southeast have been warned to flee inland ahead of the storm. 

"There are no excuses, you need to leave," Florida Governor Rick Scott said at a news conference Thursday morning, begging residents in several east coast counties to evacuate. "This is about saving your life." 

Governor Scott said time is running out and urged residents to plan for the worst and hope for the best. 

"The storm has already killed people. We should expect the same impact in Florida," Scott said. "Save your life." 

The following Florida counties are all under varying levels of evacuation orders: Palm Beach, Broward, St. Johns, Duval, Brevard, St. Lucie, Flagler, Indian River, Martin, Miami-Dade, Nassau, and Volusia. 

More information on Florida evacuations, shelters and road closures

Delta canceled 120 flights to and from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach airports, which began about noon Thursday. The airline said it is waiving fees for rebooking or cancelling travel in areas affected by Hurricane Matthew. More flights and airports may be added to the list as the storm moves north. Delta has set up a webpage outlining the flights affected. Other airlines said they are working hard to reschedule fliers who may be booked on a flight to the affected areas.

Matthew has already left a wake of damage through Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Bahamas.

"When a hurricane is forecast to take a track roughly parallel to a coastline, as Matthew is forecast to do from Florida through South Carolina, it becomes very difficult to specify impacts at any one location," said National Hurricane Center forecaster Lixion Avila.

WATCH: East Coast prepares for Hurricane Matthew

Florida will feel the fury of the early October hurricane first. The forecast track takes Matthew on a path parallel to the Florida coast, staying just offshore. But some forecast models suggest the eye of the storm will come ashore over Florida. In either case, Matthew will be close enough to do significant damage along a wide swath of the east coast. By Thursday morning, about 3,000 people had moved into emergency shelters in Florida.

In South Florida, government officials are worried residents have become complacent after 11 years of near misses. Hurricanes Wilma and Katrina, along with Andrew, were in the mind of officials as they spoke at a press conference Tuesday. Rep. Carlos Curbelo wants assurances that the federal, state and local governments are working together.

"We just can't take it for granted that that's always going to happen," Curbelo said.

From Broward County to the Space Coast, where hurricane warnings are in effect, officials have closed schools for the rest of the week. 

Lines at grocery stores in South Florida were heavier than usual and some essentials were in short supply. Near Fort Lauderdale, The Home Depot in Davie briefly ran out of propane for gas barbecues and the supply of batteries was dwindling. People bought plywood to cover windows, tarps to put over outdoor furniture and coolers for food storage.

Florida can expect as much as 10 inches of rain in some isolated areas.

On the Georgia coast, 92-year-old Lou Arcangeli saw two of his adult children come to his home on Tybee Island to help prepare and evacuate if necessary.

"It's serious," said Arcangeli, who has lived in the Savannah area since 1979, when Hurricane David became the last hurricane to make landfall on Georgia's 100-mile coast. "I'm going to keep an eye on it and not wait until the last minute. As far as I'm concerned, what's going to happen is going to happen."

The city of Tybee Island issued a mandatory evacuation for island residents as of 3 p.m. Wednesday for all residents and visitors, according to the city’s website. Six Georgia counties are under a voluntary evacuation order. Schools in those areas have canceled classes and activities through the weekend.

Click here for more on Georgia's response to Hurricane Matthew.

Georgia’s Emergency Operations Center was activated to make sure all the resources are fully coordinated as Gov. Nathan Deal added 17 more counties to his state of emergency declaration. The governor’s declaration frees up emergency funds ahead of the storm, allows special exemptions for commercial vehicles which will allow faster transportation of supplies, and also warns about price gouging. 

WATCH: South Carolina seniors evacuated to Georgia due to Hurricane Matthew

Somerby of Peachtree City welcomes nearly 50 residents and almost 20 staff from their sister facility in South Carolina. The senior living facility there was evacuated ahead of Matthew. Residents drove the 6 hours to the Fayette County facility on Wednesday. Facility staff said they stocked up on air mattresses and bedding for the seniors. They plan to have fun activities planned for the duration of their stay to help pass the time.

WATCH: S.C. seniors settle into temporary home in Peachtree City

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said during a press conference Wednesday evening that more than a million people are expected to evacuate. She has directed the National Guard to mobilize and is working with transportation officials to put the state’s reverse lane evacuation plan in place.

Folly Beach is closed to everyone except residents and essential personnel. Police at a checkpoint at the bridge leading onto the island are turning back visitors and sightseers, but several pickup trucks could be seen carrying plywood onto the island.

Farmers in Matthew's path scrambled to protect their crops. In South Carolina, Jeremy Cannon was harvesting his soybeans a week early after waiting too long before last year's record rainstorm. He watched his soybeans and cotton crops slowly drown as 20 inches of rain fell, costing him $800,000.

RELATED: Get the latest tropical updates at

Due to conditions around Columbia and the Midlands caused by heavy rain and flooding, all classes on the USC Columbia campus are canceled for the entire week. A decision regarding Saturday night's game between Georgia and South Carolina is expected Thursday.

President Barack Obama visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency's headquarters Wednesday to be briefed on preparations. FEMA has deployed personnel to emergency operation centers in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. It's also positioning commodities and other supplies at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and in Albany, Georgia.

Regional response coordination centers in Atlanta and Philadelphia are in round-the-clock operations  and the national response coordination center in Washington will begin 24-hour operations with full staffing on Thursday.

The last Category 3 storm or higher to hit the United States was Wilma in October 2005. It made landfall with 120 mph (190 kph) winds in southwest Florida, killing five people as it pushed through the Everglades and into the Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach area. It caused an estimated $21 billion in damage and left thousands of residents without power for more than a week. It concluded a two-year span when a record eight hurricanes hit the state.

President Barack Obama has declared an emergency in the state of Florida and has ordered federal aid to supplement state, tribal, and local response efforts to Hurricane Matthew. Obama's action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate efforts to alleviate the suffering caused by the hurricane. The directive applies to more than two dozen counties in Florida.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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