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Empty shelves and long gas station lines were reported across the Southeast as coastal communities prepared Wednesday to flee deadly Hurricane Matthew.
A state of emergency was declared in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas as the Category-3 hurricane crawled through the Caribbean and threatened a damaging rendezvous with the U.S. coast later this week.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday morning the state should prepare to feel the wrath of the storm over the next 24 hours. "We are preparing for the worst, we are hoping for the best and we're not taking any chances," he said.
"We must prepare to be hit by a devastating hurricane," the governor added.
Meteorologists are still unclear exactly how Matthew will impact the U.S., but South Carolina is preparing to evacuate almost a quarter of its population and other states have brought in the National Guard.
Residents have already begun stocking up on supplies, with superstore shelves running empty of essentials such as bread, milk, and batteries, and cars forming long lines at gas stations.
"It's a good that [people] are actually paying attention to the storm and are being prepared," said 45-year-old Stacie Klein, from Delray Beach, Florida.
According to Klein, three stores in her area had been depleted of essential supplies Tuesday.
"If things look too bad, it's hotel bound for me," she added. "I'm glued to the TV and have notifications and alerts sent to my phone."
Similar shortages were reported in other parts of Florida and in Charleston, South Carolina.
Myrtle Beach resident Michaela Choate, 22, said she "couldn't even get near a gas station" on Tuesday.
"It was so packed. You couldn't get into the parking lot," she said. Choate had better luck filling up early Wednesday, and she and her family are headed to Asheville, North Carolina, to wait for the storm to pass.
"It's kind of scary to think something like this is coming to hit our home," she said.
The Mount Pleasant, South Carolina police department asked residents to avoid calling 911 over gas shortages, adding, "Remember to be patient with one another."
Matthew has been churning its way through the Caribbean this week, causing widespread damage across Haiti before making landfall in in Cuba around 8 p.m. ET Tuesday.
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The hurricane was packing 125-mph winds as it took aim at the Bahamas early Wednesday.
The storm is likely to bring high winds, heavy rain and storm surges to Florida on Thursday, before crawling its way up the coast toward Georgia and the Carolinas by Friday or Saturday.
A hurricane watch was issued late Tuesday for an area of Florida encompassing Daytona Beach, Orlando and Melbourne. The rest of the state's east coast was under hurricane and tropical storm warnings.
"Only a small deviation of the track to the left of the ... forecast could bring the core of a major hurricane onshore, while a small deviation to the right could keep all of the hurricane-force winds offshore," the National Hurricane Center said Tuesday.
The Weather Channel said it was "becoming an increasing possibility" that Matthew would get close enough to bring hurricane-force winds to the East Coast states. The National Hurricane Center said Wednesday that "there is a danger of life-threatening inundation during the next 36 hours along the Florida east coast from North Palm Beach to the Sebastian Inlet."
Delta warned its air passengers that the hurricane could hinder travel across more than a dozen cities across Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.
Scott has activated 500 members of the National Guard to support hurricane response.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez was scheduled to hold a briefing at 9 a.m. Wednesday to give an update on the potential impact of the storm.
South Carolina Gov Nikki Haley said that unless the storm's course changes dramatically, officials will start to evacuate 1.1 million of the state's 4.8 million people at 3 p.m. ET Wednesday.
"We don't do voluntary or mandatory. It is an evacuation," Haley said at a news conference. "Our goal is to make sure you get 100 miles away from the coast."
Haley said she issued the warning now because "it's not going to be a fast evacuation. It could take up to several hours."
That was certainly the case for Lydia and Steve Dalton of Zionsville, Ind., who were supposed to have been on vacation in Charleston until Friday. Instead, they headed out of town Tuesday.
"It took us a long time to get out of Charleston," Lydia Dalton told NBC News late Tuesday.
"We thought we were leaving way ahead of everyone else," she said. But "it's been bumper to bumper the whole time."
Coastal Carolina University, just outside Myrtle Beach, warned all students living in low-lying areas they would need to evacuate.
"Be sure to have cash on hand in case the power goes out and ATM/credit cards cannot be accepted," it said in an advisory Tuesday evening. "Put all important documents in a protected area or carry them with you. Fill your prescriptions. Charge your electronics. Fill up your vehicle with fuel."
School's in South Carolina's Greenville County would be open Wednesday but no buses would be running because they were being diverted to help with the evacuation effort.
In Columbia, the state capital, hotels were rapidly filling up Tuesday night, NBC station WIS reported.
"The phones have been ringing off the hooks," said Jana Medlin, director of sales at the Inn at USC Wyndham Garden near the University of South Carolina campus.
North Carolina Gov. Gov. Pat McCrory has declared an emergency in 66 counties. And authorities in Georgia have said they are monitoring the changing forecast and will decide Wednesday whether to carry out evacuations.