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Rick Scott: ‘Our No. 1 priority is protecting life’

State offices in more than two dozen counties will be closed beginning Thursday, and counties up and down the east coast are encouraging residents to evacuate ahead Hurricane Matthew.

The state Department of Management Services closed state offices in 26 counties on Thursday and Friday. The announcement came as Hurricane Matthew barrels over the Bahamas and takes aim at Florida.

“We haven’t had a storm like this in a long time,” said Gov. Rick Scott during a storm briefing in Brevard County. “I’m very concerned. We have to talk to everyone we know and say, ‘why would you take a chance?’.”

Scott directed the Florida Department of Transportation to suspend tolls on roads in counties where evacuation orders are in place. As of Wednesday afternoon, tolls on State Road 528 were suspended. The road goes from Brevard County, where a mandatory evacuation is in place for the barrier islands, to Orlando.

The governor has encouraged Floridians along the East Coast to evacuate, once again telling Floridians to leave as soon as they can.

“Our No. 1 priority is protecting life,” said Scott. “Once the storm comes, we can’t put first responders in harm’s way. You must leave before it’s too late. We can rebuild your home. We can rebuild your business. We cannot rebuild your life.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection announced it was closing state parks and evacuating campgrounds across the state. Parks in Brevard, Okeechobee, St. Lucie, and Martin counties have been closed, as have state park campgrounds in Volusia, Flagler, St. Johns, Okeechobee, Putnam, Nassau, Duval, Martin, and Monroe counties.

Evacuation orders have been issued in nearly a dozen counties, said Scott. Voluntary evacuation orders have been issued for parts of Palm Beach, Broward, Duval, St. Lucie, Flagler, Indian River, and Volusia counties. Scott said evacuation orders for parts of Indian River and Volusia counties become mandatory orders Thursday morning.

Mandatory orders have been issued for parts of St. Johns, Brevard, and Martin counties.

“This is a dangerous storm,” said Scott. “It’s never too early to evacuate.”

Hurricane Matthew was headed toward the Bahamas Wednesday, after hitting Cuba hard. The center of the storm is expected to arrive near the Florida coast Thursday night. The Category 3 storm has winds of 120 mph.

It has been more than a decade since Florida has been hit by a storm this powerful, and Scott stressed that Floridians should take action to make sure they are prepared.

“We’re going to lose power. We’re going to have a messy storm. Have water, have food, have a radio,” he said. “If you think you’re going to have to evacuate, do it now.”

_The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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