Hurricane Matthew, the worst Caribbean storm in almost a decade, has killed dozens of people, mostly in Haiti, prompting US officials to order the evacuation of more than two million people in Florida and other southeastern states.
The storm left a trail of devastation in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, and in the Bahamas as it headed north towards the southeastern US coast, gaining in strength over water and threatening an estimated 8 million residents of Florida in its path.
It was expected to make landfall in Florida on Thursday night.
Cuba and Haiti were hit with 225km/hr (140m/hr) winds, with images from the southwestern coastal town of Jeremie in Haiti showing destroyed villages and flattened homes.
Haiti’s interior minister Francois Anick Joseph said the hurricane had claimed at least 108 lives in the country.
Four people were killed in the neighbouring Dominican Republican before the hurricane moved north to the Bahamas on Thursday morning.
Meteorologists expect the storm to surge to a Category Four hurricane with winds of up 150 miles per hour.
The White House pointed to the images of damage caused in Haiti as a warning to people living in the southeastern US about what they might be facing.
“We strongly encourage people who live in the areas that are likely to be affected to heed the warnings and instructions of local officials, including evacuation orders,” said president Barack Obama’s press secretary Josh Earnest.
"There are no excuses, you need to leave. This storm will kill you. Time is running out," warned Florida governor Rick Scott on Thursday morning, making a last-minute plea with residents living along the state's coast to evacuate.
The governor joined his counterparts in states further up the US southeastern coast, in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, by declaring states of emergency, bring more than two million people living in coastal areas under evacuation orders.
“Where we live it looks like we are right in the centre of where this thing is going to come in,” said Paul Sparks, who is originally from Malahide, Co Dublin, speaking by phone as he shuttered his house in Cocoa Beach, about an hour southeast of Orlando on Florida’s central coast.
Mr Sparks and his wife were preparing to evacuate to a hotel inland as he spoke.
“The whole house is sealed up,” he said. “Hopefully it will be here when we get back. We have never experienced anything like this before.”
Further south, Goretti Canty, who moved from Booterstown in Dublin 30 years ago, planned to stay in her home about five miles from the coast in the town of Sebastian, but had asked her tenants in a rental property she has on a sea barrier island in Fort Pierce to evacuate.
“It is not anything to be taken lightly,” she said. “We have water and food for a couple of days. In 2004, we had a hurricane too and we had no electricity for two weeks.
“I don’t care if I lose electricity – I will survive that. I don’t want to lose the roof.”
Shelters in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were opened for evacuees. Federal emergency response teams were co-ordinating with officials in all four states and stockpiling supplies, president Barack Obama said.
Schools and airports closed
Schools and airports across the region were closed on Thursday and some hospitals were evacuated, according to local media. Hundreds of flights were cancelled in and out of the Florida cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, industry website Flightaware.com said.
Matthew was heading northwest at about 19 km/hr (12m/hr) and was expected to continue on this track on Thursday, turning north-northwest on Thursday night, the National Hurricane Center said.
Florida fuel stations posted “out of gas” signs after cars waited in long lines to fill up. Some residents prepared to wait out the storm and stocked up on water, milk and canned goods, emptying grocery store shelves, local media said.
Residents and business owners boarded up windows with plywood and hurricane shutters and placed sandbags to protect property against flooding.
“All boarded up and ready to bunker down. God be with us,” West Palm Beach resident Brad Gray said in a tweet.
In Georgia, officials expanded a state of emergency to include 30 counties and urged thousands of residents in coastal areas to evacuate.
Governor Nathan Deal issued a mandatory evacuation for people in six coastal counties east of Interstate 95, while people living west of the highway in those counties remained under a voluntary evacuation request.
Matthew was not expected to hit Georgia as hard as other states but it could still be “very dangerous,” said Lauren Merritt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Atlanta. The brunt of the storm was expected to hit the state in the early hours of Saturday.