TALLAHASSEE — As Hurricane Matthew started to hit Florida's east coast on Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott traveled the state for the third straight day with words of warning for coastal residents — and he didn't sugarcoat the danger that awaits those who don't evacuate.
"This storm will kill you," Scott said during a morning briefing at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. If "you're in an evacuation area, get out. Don't take a chance."
"Do not surf. Do not go to the beach. This will kill you," he added.
About 1.5 million Floridians live in evacuation zones, and Scott repeatedly urged those remaining to leave immediately, as he had been doing since Wednesday. But as Thursday wore on, Scott's plea became more dire.
"My biggest concern is people aren't taking this seriously enough," warned Scott at his third hurricane briefing of the day from St. Johns County Thursday afternoon. "I don't want people to lose their life."
Scott said Martin County officials have asked 17,000 people to leave the coast and barrier islands in that county, but many have decided to stay. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry also said that he was concerned that too many people remain on the long stretches along Duval County's beaches.
"If you think someone is making bad decisions, call them," Scott said. "Be a pain in the rear. Pester them to get out and evacuate."
Earlier in Tallahassee, Scott said at least some residents seemed to heed the evacuation warnings because hotels on the west coast, such as in Collier County, were starting to fill up.
"Partners like Airbnb are making rooms available for free. Visit Florida and Expedia also have listings of open hotels," Scott said. He also urged west coast residents — unlikely to be hit by the storm — to open their homes if they have rooms available for friends and family evacuating from the east.
Scott said state officials were particularly concerned about Matthew's impact on Palm Beach County, because "that's the first big area that'll be hit and conditions will arrive within hours."
The governor said that people should expect winds of up to 100 mph, reaching the Palm Beach County coast first and then barreling up the coast to Brevard and Volusia counties at the peak of its destructive power. He said the winds are expected to create a wall of water that could exceed nine feet.
Once people see the enormity of the storm as it makes landfall, the governor said those who haven't evacuated are likely to decide they want to leave but, he warned, it may be too late.
"There's a lot of people that have never been through this and are still waiting to evacuate," he said in St. Johns County Thursday afternoon. "If you're in an evacuation zone, get out now. ... We should not be putting lives at risk because you made the foolish decision not to evacuate."
In the morning, he urged evacuating residents to get on the road because "the traffic is going to pick up."
"It already picked up some yesterday. ... If you wait, all you're going to do is get stuck in traffic and there's a greater chance you'll have problems with fuel," Scott said.
By mid-afternoon, traffic on westbound I-10 out of Jacksonville had slowed as people evacuated northeast Florida, Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said. Traffic was still flowing, but officials with Florida Highway Patrol and the Department of Transportation, as well as additional Road Rangers, were deployed to keep traffic moving and alleviate bottle-necking where they could, she said.
Scott also advised residents to take only as much fuel as they need at local gas stations and don't fill up their tanks unless they have to.
State Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold said in the morning that state officials would continue monitoring traffic to keep it moving but he said, "we're confident that where we are right now that we'll be able to manage" without shifting evacuation routes into one-way roads.
Scott added: "We're watching every road and every evacuation area. We've gotten rid of the tolls. There's no reason not to get out."
Tolls were suspended late Wednesday on Florida's Turnpike, Alligator Alley on Interstate 75, and roadways overseen by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and the Central Florida Expressway Authority.
Scott said 58 shelters were open in Florida as of Wednesday night, and another 84 were set to open on Thursday.
"I know no one wants to sit in a shelter, but you need to go there now and get through this storm," he said. "Save your life."
As of early Thursday, more than 3,000 people had taken refuge in state emergency shelters across eight coastal counties — including 1,400 people in Broward County, nearly 800 in Palm Beach County, 400 in Brevard County and more than 200 in Miami-Dade. Shelters were also open in Duval, Glades, Martin and St. Lucie counties.
Scott on Thursday activated another 2,000 National Guard members — making for 3,500 members activated as of the afternoon, about half of what is available for deployment, Schutz said. Activated members include both soldiers and airmen, with search and rescue teams awaiting Hurricane Matthew in West Palm Beach and Orlando, said Air Force Maj. Caitlin Brown of the Florida National Guard. Other troops were at Camp Blanding near Starke.
Scott has authorized the mobilization of up to 6,600 Guard personnel, if need be, Schutz said. Brown said the Guard has nearly 2,500 "high water vehicles," eight helicopters, 17 boats and more than 700 generators that could be used in emergency operations, she added. The Guard also evacuated its "F-15 fleet out of the path of the storm."
Scott said state emergency operations officials had pre-positioned personnel and equipment — including 150 truckloads of water — in three staging areas in north, central and South Florida. The governor's office said the state also has available at the State Logistics Response Center in Orlando another 63 truckloads of water and 52 pallets of food, including 10,900 meal kits with three meals each.
He urged residents to prepare for potentially long-term power outages. Thousands in South Florida had started to lose power by mid-afternoon.
"Millions will lose power, possibly for a long period of time," Scott said.
After the morning briefing, Scott left Tallahassee and made stops in Stuart, Sanford and St. Augustine — his third day of traveling the state to warn residents and monitor storm preparations. He planned to be back in Tallahassee by Thursday evening, where he intended to wait out the storm.
Wednesday evening, Scott requested that President Barack Obama declare a "pre-landfall" emergency in 26 counties along the east coast, and Thursday morning, he sent a stern message that Obama should act quickly.
"I hope the president does it this morning before the storm begins," Scott said, before he reiterated it a second time for emphasis.
By Thursday afternoon, Obama granted Scott's request for an emergency declaration in advance of the storm. The two spoke by phone for a few minutes just after 12:30 p.m., Schutz said.
According to Schutz, Obama said on the call that it was "unclear" if Scott's request would be granted at this time, but then the approved declaration came in shortly afterward, she said.
In addition to the declaration request, Scott on Thursday afternoon also asked the Obama administration for more generators and pumps to place in northeast Florida, where forecast models show more intense rainfall than previously predicted, Schutz said.
Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg contributed to this story. Kristen M. Clark can be reached at [email protected] Follow @ByKristenMClark