Tolls lifted, offices close at Matthew threatens Florida

Gov. Rick Scott early Wednesday evening lifted tolls on some of the state's major roads as Florida continued to prepare for the arrival of the slow-moving, powerful and deadly Hurricane Matthew.

Tolls were suspended on the Florida Turnpike, Alligator Alley and roads that are part of the Central Florida Expressway Authority and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, Scott's office announced.

In addition to Scott issuing the toll-road order, the storm is forcing state government buildings and parks to close in numerous counties, some hospitals in Brevard, Volusia, and Duval counties have started evacuations, and state universities and colleges in central and eastern counties are canceling classes and student activities.

The eye of the storm, packing 120 mph sustained winds Wednesday afternoon, is projected by the National Hurricane Center to be along Florida's coast Thursday.

"This thing is getting close to our coast, you better be ready before," Scott said during an afternoon news conference at the Brevard County Emergency Operations Center in Rockledge. "If it turns at the last minute, you're not going to have time to get ready. You're not going to be able to get your food and water. You're not going to be able to evacuate. You're going to put you and your family's life at risk."

Scott has been calling for people to stock at least three days of supplies --- food, water and batteries --- if they don't plan to evacuate.

The track from the National Hurricane Center had the storm off Cape Canaveral about 8 a.m. Friday. Even if the storm stays offshore, the state is anticipated to get heavy rains, rip currents, beach erosion, tornadoes and hurricane-force winds.

In anticipation of the storm, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex has announced plans to close Thursday and Friday.

Evacuations were underway at Cape Canaveral Hospital, Baptist Medical Center Beaches in Jacksonville Beach, Florida Hospital in Ormond Beach and Florida Hospital in New Smyrna Beach.

All of the state's East Coast seaports and airports remained open Wednesday, but the PortMiami tunnel was being shut down to close the watertight gates.

Brevard County issued a mandatory evacuation for barrier islands that went into effect at 3 p.m. Wednesday. Mandatory evacuations for barrier islands, low-lying areas and mobile homes were set to begin Thursday morning for coastal areas in Nassau and Volusia counties.

Voluntary evacuations have been advised in St. Lucie, Flagler, Duval, St. Johns, Palm Beach, Martin, Indian River and Broward counties.

Scott activated 1,500 members of the Florida National Guard for immediate deployment, with thousands of additional Guard members on stand-by.

State offices will be closed Thursday and Friday in Baker, Brevard, Broward, Clay, Duval, Flagler, Glades, Hendry, Highlands, Indian River, Lake, Marion, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Nassau, Okeechobee, Orange, Osceola, Palm Beach, Polk, Putnam, Seminole, St. Johns, St. Lucie and Volusia counties.

The following state parks have been closed until further notice: Sebastian State Park, Okeechobee Battlefield State Park, Avalon State Park, Fort Pierce Inlet State Park, Savannas Preserve State Park and St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park.

To prepare for the storm, state campgrounds have been closed in Volusia, Flagler, St. Johns, Okeechobee, Putnam, Nassau, Duval, Martin and Monroe counties.

Florida International University in Miami canceled classes and student activities for Thursday and Friday. The University of North Florida in Jacksonville and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach canceled classes and student activities through Saturday. Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton canceled classes through Sunday.

The University of Central Florida in Orlando closed classes through Saturday and rescheduled its home football game against Tulane from Friday until Nov. 5.

Information provided by The News Service of Florida.