Hurricane Matthew is pummeling the Bahamas. And its next stop could be the United States.
Here’s what you need to know now about the powerful storm that forecasters say is gaining strength:
• Authorities urged more than 2 million people to leave their homes in coastal Florida, Georgia and South Carolina as the storm neared — the largest mandatory evacuations in the United States since Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012.
• Based on the latest projections, Matthew could make landfall in Florida early Friday as a Category 4 hurricane. It could also skirt the coast as it continues north. Outer rain bands from the storm are already approaching Florida.
• The storm has already killed at least 15 people in several Caribbean countries.
• It’s moving northwest at about 12 mph and packing 125 mph (205 kph) winds — a Category 3 storm. Thursday morning it was about 30 miles (45 km) south-southwest of Nassau, Bahamas, and 215 miles (350 km) from West Palm Beach, Florida.
• Florida Gov. Rick Scott offered a dire warning Thursday morning for people living in evacuation zones: “This is serious. … Don’t take a chance. A small movement (of the storm) could mean a lot. That’s why we have to prepare for a direct hit. So again, if you need to evacuate and you haven’t, evacuate. This storm will kill you. Time is running out. We don’t have that much time left.”
• “This could be an extremely disastrous hurricane for so many large areas where so many people can be affected,” National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb told CNN Thursday. “It’s not just going to come ashore and affect a narrow zone and then move on. It’s going to be going up the coast and could remain a major hurricane at the coast, or very close to it, the whole way up. That’s awful.”
Florida braces for direct hit
Gov. Scott warned 1.5 million residents they had 24 hours to get ready, or better yet, get going.
A direct hit by Matthew, he said, could lead to “massive destruction” on a level unseen since Hurricane Andrew devastated the Miami area in 1992. Voluntary and mandatory evacuations in his state stretch from the Miami area all the way north to the Florida-Georgia border.
People who stayed behind stocked up on supplies and boarded up windows.
Many residents found long gas lines Wednesday. But so far, the state isn’t running short on supplies, Scott said.
Airline passengers were urged to call before leaving for the airport. Fort Lauderdale’s airport is to close Thursday at 10:30 a.m. and FlightAware.com says almost 250 flights are canceled at Miami International Airport.
Palm Beach residents 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.
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 part of the country. “South Florida wants to survive #HurricaneMatthew. But we’d rather die than eat clam chowder,” Cole joked.
Mandatory evacuations in South Carolina
Cars packed highways in South Carolina, where Gov. Nikki Haley gave evacuation orders for the coastal counties of Charleston and Beaufort.
So far, about 250,000 people have left the area. And as many as 200,000 people will leave Thursday, said Kim Stenson, the director of South Carolina Emergency Management.
Tempers apparently flared during the slow traffic. A man got out of his truck at a point where vehicles were being redirected, removed a traffic cone and sped away. Police chased the man until he stopped on a dead-end road. The man fired at deputies and police officers, who shot back and wounded him, Berkeley County Chief Deputy Mike Cochran told CNN. The man was hospitalized, but his condition is unknown.
The South Carolina Department of Transportation changed the directions of eastbound traffic lanes to accommodate the exodus of people leaving coastal cities like Charleston.
As thousands fled inland, some people said they were staying put. In Charleston, which likely will feel Matthew’s impact this weekend, residents boarded up businesses and prepared to hunker down.
Cheryl Quinn said she and her husband were fine a year ago when Charleston endured heavy rain after a brush with a big storm.
“It was kind of a party down here. I hate to say that,” she said, adding that storms can be scary, too.
But she told CNN she’s reserved a hotel room, just in case.
North Carolina playing it by ear
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency for more than half the state’s 100 counties. So far, though, the governor has not urged residents to evacuate.
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 there.
“We’re just going to have to play it by ear and have our resources ready,” the governor said.
Officials are still concerned areas in eastern North Carolina that were recently flooded will see drenching rains from Matthew.
Georgia governor: ‘Remain calm, be prepared’
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has declared a state of emergency in 30 counties on or near the Atlantic Coast, and officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for Tybee Island, a low-lying island east of Savannah.
In six of those coastal counties — Chatham, Bryan, Liberty, McIntosh, Glynn and Camden — Deal urged more than 500,000 residents to voluntarily evacuate.
“Remain calm, be prepared and make informed, responsible decisions,” Deal said.
— CNN’s Holly Yan, Stephanie Elam, Rolando Zenteno, Keith Allen, Shawn Nottingham and Alexander Leininger contributed to this report.