COCOA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Heavy rain from one of the most fearsome storms of the century began to lash the coast ahead of Hurricane Floyd Tuesday night, as evacuees from Florida to the Carolinas streamed inland in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Nearly 2 million people were told to get out of the way as Floyd skirted the north-central Florida coast, menacing an area from Cape Canaveral to Jacksonville with 140 mph winds. The monstrous, 600-mile storm _ bigger than the whole state of Florida _ threatened to roll ashore early Thursday, probably in Georgia or South Carolina.

Heavy rain began falling from West Palm Beach to Cape Canaveral Tuesday evening, with forecasters expecting tropical storm winds to come ashore just before dawn and hurricane force winds greater than 74 mph late Wednesday morning, if the storm continued its current path.

By 8 p.m., Floyd was centered 205 miles east-southeast of Cape Canaveral, moving northwest at 12 mph. Its winds had eased from Monday's 155 mph, but it was still a Category 4 storm, the second most powerful hurricane designation.

``If this thing parallels us, it could act like a weed-eater going up the coast,'' said Craig Fugate of the Florida Emergency Operations Center.

Forecasters expected the eye of the storm to come within 50 miles of Daytona Beach early Wednesday afternoon as it moves north. Landfall was projected close to Charleston, S.C., by early Thursday, said meteorologist Jeremy Pennington with the National Hurricane Center

Walt Disney World closed early because of the weather for the first time in its 28-year history. Other Orlando-area resorts like Universal Studios and SeaWorld also shut down.

At Cape Canaveral's nearly deserted Kennedy Space Center, 102 workers volunteered to stay behind to ride out Floyd, which NASA feared could destroy launch pads and the hangars where all four space shuttles are kept.

``Everybody else is gone. It's kind of eerie out here,'' NASA spokesman George Diller, one of the volunteers, said by telephone from a fortified building at the space center.

President Clinton issued pre-emptive disaster declarations for Florida and Georgia to enable recovery efforts to begin as quickly as possible. He also planned to return a day early from his trip to New Zealand.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a staging area in Atlanta, stockpiling food, ice, water, cots, sleeping bags, blankets, generators, portable toilets, flashlights and plastic sheeting so that they could be delivered to hard-hit areas in a hurry.

In Georgia, authorities ordered 500,000 people to evacuate six coastal counties. A similar ordered covered 800,000 people in South Carolina, a week shy of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo's destructive run.

To ease traffic out of Charleston, all lanes of Interstate 26 were switched over to westbound traffic.

In North Carolina, residents were urged to evacuate outlying islands on the Outer Banks, and Gov. Jim Hunt declared a state of emergency.

``Get out of harm's way,'' Hunt said. ``Don't tempt it.''

In north and central Florida, where hundreds of thousands were warned to clear out, traffic was bumper-to-bumper on hurricane escape routes.

``We are getting out of Dodge,'' said Phyllis Cusack of Daytona Beach, who was driving westward on Interstate 10 with her daughter. ``We're just going to drive and find a hotel, and we brought pillows in case we don't find one.''

Danny Mills, a 34-year-old Kennedy Space Center worker, got stuck in traffic, managing only 15 miles in 2 1/2 hours. He became so frustrated he simply turned around and returned to Cape Canaveral.

``It was just inching along,'' he said. ``You made a mile every five to 10 minutes. There were people going on the sides of the road. People were getting angry.''

Daytona Beach, Palm Beach and other coastal areas were virtual ghost towns as most people appeared to heed evacuation orders. Most gas stations, restaurants and shops were closed.

Still, some people refused to abandon their homes and businesses. Some went to the beach to watch the increasingly powerful surf, while others kicked back with friends in bars.

While Americans were fleeing inland, Hurricane Floyd vented its fury on the Bahamas, toppling trees and power lines, stripping roofs from homes and sending roiling sea waters into the streets of the capital, Nassau. Phone service was cut off throughout much of the low-lying Atlantic archipelago, and residents and tourists sought safety in government shelters.

A hurricane warning was in effect along the U.S. coast from Boca Raton to Little River Inlet, S.C. High surf advisories were in effect as far north as New York's Long Island.

The hurricane warning was lifted in the Miami area after the storm made a northward turn, and evacuees there were allowed to return home.

But with hurricane winds extending 125 miles from Floyd's eye and tropical storm-force winds reaching out as far as 290 miles, Floyd could potentially reach clear across the state to Tampa, on Florida's Gulf Coast.

Hundreds of airline flights in and out of Florida and Georgia were canceled, and Amtrak suspended train service into and out of Miami, scrambling the plans of vacationers and business travelers around the country. The Navy sent ships to ride out the storm at sea, and military aircraft were flown inland to bases from Maine to Texas.

In South Carolina, the Marine boot camp at Parris Island was preparing school buses to move 7,000 recruits to inland shelter.

Dorothy Galbreath, 75, insisted on staying in her beachfront home in New Smyrna Beach. She did not want to risk moving her son Ricky Galbreath, 51, because he has cerebral palsy and cannot walk or talk.

``I just put it in God's hands and let him take care of it,'' she said.