Haiti said Thursday that the country's death toll from Hurricane Matthew had risen past 260 and that search-and-rescue operations in the wake of the Category 4 storm were continuing.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency in the southeastern state of South Carolina, which was in the path of the powerful storm, along with the states of Florida and Georgia. Tropical storm warnings stretched as far north as North Carolina.
The president's move will free up federal funds to help South Carolina recover from hurricane damage.
Thursday evening, Matthew was pounding the Bahamas. The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the eye of the storm would soon hit the city of Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, and it warned that the hurricane could have "disastrous impacts" later on Florida.
Florida Governor Rick Scott made repeated announcements over the past two days, urging his constituents to take this storm seriously. On Thursday, as about 1.5 million people were ordered to move inland, he said: "There are no excuses. You need to leave. Evacuate, evacuate, evacuate."
Even more bluntly, he said: "This storm will kill you."
Matthew was the strongest storm to make landfall in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, in 52 years.
The hurricane center warned of a dangerous storm surge and the possibility of at least 20 centimeters of rain as Matthew pounded Andros Island and Nassau on Thursday.
The forecast said Matthew could gain even more strength as it approaches the Florida coast. The latest forecast track predicted Matthew would move directly up the east coast of Florida throughout Friday.
In an interview with VOA, Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) spokesman Raphael Lemaitre cautioned residents in southeastern coastal states to heed evacuation and other warnings from local officials. “Regardless of the direction that this storm takes, it’s going to have significant impact,” he said.
Georgia declared states of emergency in 13 coastal counties. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley ordered the evacuation of several coastal counties where more than 1 million people reside.
Lemaitre said FEMA had personnel and other resources at the ready for residents affected by Matthew.
“We have commodities on the ground already pre-located in several different staging areas throughout the potentially affected areas, things like food, water, blankets, cots," he said. "We also have personnel on the ground there, rapid response teams.”
The coastal city of Saint Augustine, Florida was in a mandatory evacuation area, prompting resident and former VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins to temporarily move to an area north of the city. Dockins told VOA that “very hard bands of rain” were sweeping through the area Thursday afternoon and the “winds are picking up.” She said many of the smaller stores had closed but larger chain stores remained open for business.
WATCH: Hurricane Matthew devastation in photos
Strongest in decades
Interim Haitian President Jocelerme Privert and administration officials were assessing the damage in Haiti after not being able to do so because of a washed-out bridge that cut off access to the most affected southern areas. Privert described the situation as “catastrophic” after flying over southern Haiti Wednesday in a U.S. Coast Guard plane.
The World Bank said it was allocating funds to help with relief efforts in Haiti and had a team of workers there.
“Our staff on the ground are already working with the ministry of public works to begin restoring access to hardest-hit areas in the south of the country, including a key bridge that was washed away,” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said.
VOA Creole reporter Jean-Hernst Eliscar said many houses in the southern city of Les Cayes were flooded and had no roofs.
The United Nations office coordinating humanitarian relief efforts in Haiti said half of the country’s population of 11 million people had been affected by the storm. At least 350,000 people were in need of immediate assistance, the U.N. said.
The severe flooding in Haiti sparked a resurgence of cholera. Officials said eight cases had already been reported.
US military helps
The U.S. Navy had nine military helicopters, an aircraft carrier and troops on hand in response to the Haitian government's request for help. Some of the helicopters were equipped for search-and-rescue missions and others for transporting supplies.
Dave Herman of the U.S. Agency for International Development said the U.S. government was working "very diligently" with Catholic Relief Services and the Red Cross to ensure relief aid was distributed to Haiti's most vulnerable people.
Oxfam, a global anti-poverty confederation, said Thursday that at least 10,000 Haitian people were displaced and in need of aid.
"Our first response will concentrate on saving lives by providing safe water and hygiene kits to avoid the spread of cholera," said Oxfam official Jean Claude Finole.
Haiti has postponed its presidential election, scheduled for Sunday, because many schools and churches that were to serve as polling stations were being used to shelter thousands of displaced people. The head of Haiti’s provisional Electoral Council, Leopold Berlenger, said a new date for the elections would be decided by next week.
WATCH: Matthew's devastation in Haiti, Cuba, Bahamas
About 1.3 million people were evacuated in Cuba, where four cities were cut off because roads were blocked by large rocks thrown by the storm’s powerful winds. Dozens of homes were destroyed and hundreds of others damaged in the city of Baracoa. No deaths were reported in Cuba, however.
What you can do
In Washington, Obama called on people to help hurricane victims in Haiti by donating to the USAID Center for International Disaster Information (www.cidi.org). “Find out how you can help make life a little bit easier for those who didn’t have a lot to begin with,” Obama said.
Matthew is the strongest hurricane to tear through the Atlantic and Caribbean Sea since Hurricane Felix in 2007.
VOA's Creole service contributed to this report