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Governor: Florida Facing Largest Evacuation As Hurricane Matthew Approaches

Florida Gov. Rick Scott says the state could be facing its "biggest evacuation ever" because Hurricane Matthew is threatening almost the entire Atlantic coast of Florida.

Scott said Wednesday he didn't know how many people would be ordered to evacuate because it is left up to the counties, but he says every county along the coast is focused on it and has been preparing.

So far, only Brevard and Martin counties have issued mandatory evacuation orders.

Hurricane Matthew is barreling over the Bahamas and taking aim at Florida. The center of the storm is expected to arrive near the Florida coast on Thursday night. The Category 3 storm has winds of 120 mph. Florida hasn't been hit by a storm this powerful in more than a decade.

Officials in Broward County are asking some 150,000 residents who live in low-lying areas, mobile homes or along the coastline to evacuate before the storm.

Broward County Mayor Marty Kiar said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon that nine shelters will open at area schools about 9 p.m.

The National Hurricane Center has extended the hurricane warning northward in Florida as Matthew heads toward the East Coast.

Meanwhile, the storm is heading toward the Bahamas after hitting Cuba hard.

The hurricane center says the hurricane was about 105 miles south of Long Island, Bahamas. It has maximum sustained winds of 120 mph.

The hurricane center said there is a danger of life-threatening inundation during the next 36 hours along Florida's east coast from North Palm Beach to the Flagler/Volusia county line. There is the possibility of life-threatening inundation during the next 48 hours from north of the Flagler/Volusia county line to Fernandina Beach.

In the greater Tampa Bay area, Polk, Sumter and Highlands counties are under a Tropical Storm Warning.

Public schools and district offices in Polk County will be closed Thursday and Friday. Schools in the district will serve as storm shelters.

Broward’s mayor was also asking tourists to either stay in their hotels, with family or friends or go to a shelter. He says the airport will have a number of flight delays and cancellations and reminded anyone with a flight to check with the airline for more information.

The mayor also says the county's 311 information hotline is now open 24/7 and is available for anyone with questions about the storm.

He also announced that all parks and libraries will close at 5 p.m. Wednesday and all governmental offices are closed Thursday and Friday.

Hurricane Warnings continue from the Treasure Coast to Broward County, and Hurricane Watches have been extended north to Jacksonville. A Storm Surge Warning has also been issued from Indian River County to just north of West Palm Beach.

Since the storm is expected to parallel the coast, forecasting the specific impacts for any given location is extremely difficult, said Florida Public Radio Network meteorologist Jeff Huffman. And for this reason, National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb encourages anyone in the warned areas to prepare today.

“Today is the day to prepare,” Knabb said. “Don’t wait until it becomes more clear what the details are going to be before you begin preparing.”

Tropical storm conditions could begin in South Florida as early as midday Thursday.

Governor Rick Scott said during a Wednesday morning news conference that "if you're able to go early, leave now." Mandatory evacuations were scheduled to begin at 3 p.m.

The slow-moving storm was expected to drench the coast from the Keys through central Florida, storm surge up to 5 feet deep was expected along the Atlantic coast, and the hurricane could produce tornadoes. Even if Matthew doesn't come ashore, its tropical storm-force winds could reach the state.

In his 5 a.m. analysis of the forecast models for Matthew's track along the Atlantic coast, senior hurricane specialist Daniel Brown wrote, "Only a slight deviation to the west of forecast track could result in landfall in Florida."

"We must prepare to be hit by a devastating hurricane," Scott said.

"This is a dangerous storm and it's never too early to evacuate," Scott said. "If you live in a low-lying area or on a barrier island, go ahead and leave."

Brevard County officials say patients will be relocated to inland hospitals from Cape Canaveral Hospital near the coast. It wasn't immediately clear how many patients would be affected.

Florida's theme parks are taking a wait and see approach as the storm approaches.

A message on Walt Disney World's website Wednesday says all of its theme parks and resorts are "currently operating under normal conditions" as officials continue to monitor the storm. They advised those who plan on visiting Disney to monitor news outlets for the latest weather information.

Officials at SeaWorld in Orlando announced on its website that they "anticipate altered hours due to Hurricane Matthew."

Universal Orlando's website doesn't mention the storm, but spokesman Tom Schroder tells the Orlando Sentinel the resorts executives are monitoring the storm and are "beginning to decide what the next steps are."

The Sentinel says the three theme parks closed for the first time in their histories in 1999 as Hurricane Floyd approached. The storm eventually changed course.

In 2004, the parks closed for three hurricanes - Charley, Frances and Jeanne. Disney and Universal also closed briefly during Wilma in 2005.

Many school districts along Florida's Atlantic coastline already have canceled classes as Hurricane Matthew approaches the state.

In Miami-Dade County, the state's largest school district, officials say they'll monitor the storm on Wednesday morning before making a decision on whether to cancel classes on Thursday and Friday.

From Broward County to the Space Coast - where hurricane warnings are in effect - officials have already closed schools for the rest of the week. Some school districts are sending students home early on Wednesday, and after school activities are canceled.

Districts in Daytona Beach and farther north announced on their websites that they'll be monitoring the storm before deciding whether to cancel classes for the rest of the week.

Most colleges and universities in the warning areas also have canceled classes starting Wednesday evening.

A number of other closings have been announced. In Palm Beach County, the courthouse will close at 1 p.m. on Wednesday and jury duty has been canceled. Most government offices also are closing early on Wednesday.