FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- 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.
"If you're able to go early, leave now," Scott said during a morning news conference.
Farther up the East Coast, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley also announced plans starting Wednesday afternoon to evacuate a quarter million people, not counting tourists, from the coast.
Haley said two major coastal counties would begin evacuating residents from vulnerable coastal areas within hours. She said some 315 buses were being dispatched to the area. The National Guard and other law enforcement agents are mobilized, ready to ensure an orderly evacuation.
The evacuation of the greater Charleston County and Beaufort areas announced by Haley was set to take effect at 3 p.m., but traffic already was bumper-to-bumper during morning rush hour on Interstate 26 as people fled ahead of the storm. Gasoline was hard to come by during morning rush hour, with at least half a dozen stations in Mount Pleasant out of fuel and lines at others. The state's attorney general warned stations against price gouging.
"We ask everybody to please be safe," Haley said at a news conference, warning those thinking of staying put that they could be risking the life of a law enforcement officer if they had to be rescued later.
In Florida, a message on Walt Disney World's website Wednesday said 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 officials "anticipate altered hours due to Hurricane Matthew."
Government officials are worried about complacency, especially in South Florida, which hasn't seen a major hurricane in 11 years.
In Miami-Dade County, the state's largest school district, officials said they'll monitor the storm on Wednesday morning before making a decision on whether to cancel classes Thursday and Friday. The county remains under a tropical storm warning.
From Broward County to the Space Coast — where hurricane warnings are in effect — officials already have closed schools for the rest of the week. Some school districts are sending students home early on Wednesday, and after school activities are canceled.
Most colleges and universities in the warning areas also have canceled classes starting Wednesday evening.
A dangerous Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 115 mph, Matthew was bearing down on the southern Bahamas early Wednesday and expected to be very near Florida's Atlantic coast by Thursday evening. Already the hurricane was spreading high winds, heavy rain and a dangerous storm surge ahead of it as it neared the Bahamas.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Matthew — recently a Category 4 storm and at one brief point a fierce Category 5 — will remain a powerful storm at least through Thursday night. It added that while maximum winds decreased slightly in recent hours, the fluctuation in intensity was expected and some slight strengthening is forecast in coming days.
Officials hope to avoid a repeat of Hurricanes Wilma and Katrina, which caused major damage to South Florida in 2005, and Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, leveled much of the city of Homestead in 1992.
The Miami forecasters issued a hurricane warning for the area north of Golden Beach near Fort Lauderdale to Sebastian Inlet, meaning hurricane force winds of 74 mph or higher are expected within two days. A hurricane watch is also in effect from Sebastian Inlet to Fernandina Beach, meaning hurricane force winds could occur.
In Brevard County, officials said shelters will begin opening at 4 p.m. In addition, Cape Canaveral Hospital near the coast began moving patients to inland hospitals.
Hurricane Hermine became the first to strike Florida since Wilma in 2005 when it hit the eastern Panhandle on Sept. 2 as a Category 1 storm, causing one death, storm surge damage to beachfront homes and downed trees and powerlines. That 11-year lull between storms hitting Florida was the longest on record.
The last storm to hit Florida from the Atlantic side was Katrina, which struck on its way to devastating the Gulf coast.
Wilma made landfall as a Category 3 storm with 120 mph winds, killing five people as it pushed from southwest Florida, through the Everglades and into the Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach area, causing an estimated $21 billion in damage and leaving thousands of residents without power for more than a week. It concluded a two-year span when a record eight hurricanes hit the state.
Governors in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina declared states of emergency, and the White House said President Barack Obama canceled a campaign and health care events in Florida on Wednesday.
Kay reported from Miami Beach. Associated Press reporters Jeffrey Collins, Jack Jones and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina; Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina; and Freida Frisaro in Miami contributed to this report.