TITUSVILLE, Fla. — As Hurricane Matthew barreled toward Central Florida, millions of people fled inland or barricaded themselves inside their homes Thursday to escape what could be dangerous flooding, widespread blackouts, and 140-mile-per-hour wind capable of turning debris into deadly missiles.
The storm had already left a terrifying wake in Haiti, where the death toll, still preliminary, exceeded 280 and reports from the southern city of Jérémie indicated that as much as 80 percent of the buildings had been destroyed.
There were hundreds injured, and the authorities acknowledged that the true extent of the toll was unknown.
With the hurricane now bearing down on Florida, there were mileslong traffic jams of residents struggling to get to safety after Governor Rick Scott ordered the evacuation of low-lying areas that are home to 1.5 million people.
As anxiety grew throughout the day and night, local officials distributed leaflets and pounded on doors at mobile home parks, telling residents that their homes were not safe; and the state opened more than 80 shelters with food and water, capable of taking in tens of thousands of people.
Several hours after the evacuation order, the governor was still pleading with residents to heed warnings about the Category 4 storm before rising waters cut them off from escape routes.
“It might be the difference between life and death,” he said. “I think we still have people that are not taking this seriously enough.”
By Thursday afternoon, rain, wind, and high waves were already pounding much of Florida, where a smattering of surfers ignored warnings to stay away from beaches and took to the water. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 60 miles from the storm’s center.
Forecasters and government officials said this could be the most powerful hurricane to strike the United States since 2005, the year of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.
Forecasters said Matthew, moving to the northwest, would make landfall, or just skirt the coast, on Friday morning in Central Florida, with the strongest winds expected in Brevard and Volusia counties.
Then it was expected to power its way north along the Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina shores, before turning back out to sea.
That path would put coastal population centers like Daytona Beach and Jacksonville in Florida; Savannah, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; and even inland Florida cities like Orlando and Gainesville, in serious danger.
A hurricane warning was in effect in an area stretching more than 400 miles, from northern Miami-Dade County, Florida, to South Santee River, S.C., and severe weather was expected into North Carolina. On Thursday, 500,000 people in Georgia and 250,000 in South Carolina were told to evacuate.
“We’re going to have a lot of power outages, and it’s not going to come back on in one day,” Scott said. “Millions are going to lose power.”
The National Weather Service issued a stream of dire warnings, trying to impress upon people that, even in a region accustomed to hurricanes, the fury bearing down on them was worse than anything most of them had seen.
Storm surges of 7 to 11 feet were predicted to inundate barrier islands and other low-lying areas, with breaking waves up to 18 feet high pounding the shore.
“Extremely dangerous, life-threatening weather conditions are forecast in the next 24 hours,” the Weather Service warned. “Airborne debris lofted by extreme winds will be capable of breaching structures, unprotected windows, and vehicles.”
President Obama declared an emergency in Florida in advance of the storm, clearing the way for federal aid, and Scott activated 3,500 National Guard troops, more than half the state’s total.
At an Ace Hardware store in Titusville, near Cape Canaveral, people bought supplies to board up their homes, but the shoppers who lined up to buy generators were too late. Each of the machines had a handwritten note stuck to it: “Sold.”
“No. 1 item? Oh my God, generators,” said Donna Halt, the store administrator. “That, and D and C batteries. Nobody’s got them.”