CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP/WAVY) — A weakening Hurricane Matthew continued its march along the Atlantic coast Saturday, lashing two of the South’s most historic cities and some of its most popular resort islands, flattening trees, swamping streets and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands.
The storm was blamed for at least four deaths in the U.S., all in Florida. In its long wake, it also left well over 300 people dead in Haiti.
Matthew raked the Georgia and South Carolina coasts with torrential rain and stiff winds. But just as it did during its long trek up the Florida shoreline, its center, or eye, mercifully stayed just far enough offshore that coastal communities didn’t feel the full force of its winds.
At 9 a.m., Matthew was centered about 30 miles southeast of Charleston, its winds having dropped to 75 mph, a Category 1 storm. That was down from 145 mph when the storm roared into Haiti. It was moving at 12 mph.
Among the cities bracing for its effects later in the day were Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina.
Matthew brought some of the highest tides on record along the South Carolina coast. Streets and intersections in historic Charleston — a city of handsome pre-Civil War homes, church steeples and romantic carriage rides — were flooded.
In the end, it sideswiped Florida’s Atlantic coast early Friday, swamping streets, toppling trees onto homes and knocking out power to more than 1 million people. But it stayed just far enough offshore to prevent major damage to cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. And the coast never felt the full force of its 120 mph winds.
“It looks like we’ve dodged a bullet,” said Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Democrat whose district includes Martin County, just north of West Palm Beach.
At least four people died in Florida. An elderly St. Lucie County couple died from carbon monoxide fumes while running a generator in their garage and two women were killed in separate events when trees fell on a home and a camper.
While the hurricane was weakening quickly, several northeastern Florida cities, including Jacksonville, were still in harm’s way, along with communities farther up the coast. Authorities warned that not only could Matthew easily turn toward land, it could also cause deadly flooding with its surge of seawater.
The storm gouged out several large sections of the coastal A1A highway north of Daytona Beach, and had nearly completely washed out the northbound lane for about a mile at Flagler Beach.
“It’s pretty bad, it’s jagged all over the place,” said Oliver Shields, whose two-story house is within sight of the highway.
About 500,000 people were under evacuation orders in the Jacksonville area, along with another half-million on the Georgia coast. More than 300,000 fled their homes in South Carolina. The latest forecast showed the storm could also scrape the North Carolina coast.
“If you’re hoping it’s just going to pass far enough offshore that this isn’t a problem anymore — that is a very, very big mistake that you could make that could cost you your life,” National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb warned.
St. Augustine, which is the nation’s oldest permanently occupied European settlement and includes a 17th-century Spanish fortress and many historic homes turned into bed-and-breakfasts, was awash in rain and seawater that authorities said could top 8 feet.
“It’s a really serious devastating situation,” the mayor of the city of 14,000 said. “The flooding is just going to get higher and higher and higher.”
Historic downtown Charleston, usually bustling with tourists who flock to see the city’s beautifully maintained antebellum homes, was eerily quiet, with many stores and shops boarded up with plywood and protected by stacks of sandbags.
The city announced a midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew Saturday, around the time the coast was expected to take the brunt of the storm.
Matthew’s outer bands began lashing Savannah, a city that was settled in 1733 and has a handsome historic district of moss-draped trees, brick and cobblestone streets, Greek revival mansions and other 18th- and 19th-century homes.
Matthew was expected to bring winds of 50 to 60 mph that could snap branches from the burly live oaks and damage the historic homes. And 8 to 14 inches of rain could bring some street flooding.
Savannah-Chatham County Police Chief Jack Lumpkin said officers will enforce a dusk-until-dawn curfew.
A small crew of workers Thursday set out to button up the Owens-Thomas house, one of Savannah’s architectural gems. The 1819 Greek revival mansion serves as a museum.
Sonja Wallen, a curator, said antique rugs and furniture were moved away from the home’s more than 40 windows, many of them still with their original8glass. Windows were fitted with plywood and other coverings, while sandbags were stacked at the basement entrance.
“It’s basically a lot of little details — sandbags and duct tape around doorways where water can get in,” Wallen said. “It’s pretty much the same stuff you would do for any home.”
Some of Georgia’s resort islands were expected to take the brunt of Matthew’s storm surge, including St. Simons and Tybee.
On Tybee Island, where most of the 3,000 residents were evacuated, Jeff Dickey held out hope that the storm might shift and spare his home. But as the rain picked up, he decided staying wasn’t worth the risk.
“We kind of tried to wait to see if it will tilt more to the east,” Dickey said. “But it’s go time.”
Mayor Jason Buelterman personally called some of the holdouts, hoping to persuade them to move inland.
“This is what happens when you don’t have a hurricane for 100 years,” he said. “People get complacent.”
Airlines canceled at least 5,000 flights Wednesday through Saturday, including many in and out of Orlando, where all three of the resort city’s world-famous theme parks — Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld — closed because of the storm.
But things began getting back to normal, with flights resuming in Miami and other South Florida airports.
In areas the storm had already passed, residents and officials began to assess the damage.
Robert Tyler had feared the storm surge would flood his street two blocks from the Cape Canaveral beach. Tree branches fell, he could hear transformers exploding overnight, and the windows seemed as if they were about to blow in, despite the plywood over them.
But in the morning, there wasn’t much water, his home didn’t appear to be damaged on first inspection, and his vehicles were unharmed.
“Overnight, it was scary as heck,” Tyler said. “That description of a freight train is pretty accurate.”
The hurricane had been a potentially catastrophic Category 4 storm, but weakened slightly early Friday to a Category 3. Forecasters said it could dump up to 15 inches of rain in some spots and cause a storm surge of 9 feet or more.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a video Friday morning of Hurricane Hunters flying through the eye of Matthew.
President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, freeing up federal money and personnel to protect lives and property.
At the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, NASA no longer has to worry about rolling space shuttles back from the launch pad to the hangar because of hurricanes, since the shuttle fleet is now retired. But the spaceflight company SpaceX was concerned about the storm’s effect on its leased seaside pad.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Thursday signed a state of emergency order to provide relief help to all states that will be affected by Hurricane Matthew.
Matthew is still forecast to miss the Hampton Roads region of Virginia — as well as most of northeast North Carolina — but some models overnight Thursday shifted a little farther north toward Cape Hatteras.
Northeast North Carolina could see heavy rain late Saturday night and into Sunday morning.
The rain is expected to start late Saturday. A majority of the heavy rains are expected to impact areas around northeast North Carolina, including Elizabeth City and parts of the Outer Banks.
Some models forecast rain totals to hit as high as 9 to 13 inches in parts of the region.
Other models, including the European model, heave rain totals slight lower, with areas south of Currituck forecast to get nearly 7 inches of rain. Between the two outlooks, the rain should result in flooding for North Carolina and possibly even Southside Hampton Roads.
A flash flood watch is in effect for those areas until Sunday afternoon.
Areas including Chesapeake and Suffolk are forecast to get as much as 10 inches of rain Sunday, according to some models. Wind gusts in North Carolina could get as high as 45 mph even over 55 mph.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory issued a state of emergency Thursday for all 100 counties in the state. A tropical storm warning was issued for parts of North Carolina’s coast, and extended Friday to include Dare County.
Matthew is expected to be transitioning from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm while it passes through the Carolinas.
WAVY’s Matt Gregory reports that there are mandatory evacuations on Ocracoke Island.
The last Category 3 storm or higher to hit the U.S. was Wilma in October 2005. It sliced across Florida with 120 mph winds, killing five people and causing an estimated $21 billion in damage.
Kennedy reported from Fort Lauderdale. Associated Press reporters Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Jennifer Kay, Freida Frisaro, Curt Anderson in Miami; Marcia Dunn in Cape Canaveral, Florida; Janelle Cogan in Orlando, Florida; Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia; Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, North Carolina; Jeffrey Collins on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina; Jack Jones and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina; and Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina, contributed to this report.
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