Hurricane Matthew Weakens Slightly, but Storm Surge Still Threatens Coastline

Four deaths in Florida were blamed on the storm, now a Category 2, as it inches toward South Carolina

Hurricane Matthew weakened slightly as it continued up the Atlantic coast and toward the Carolinas early Saturday. A 2 a.m. National Weather Service advisory said Matthew had sustained winds of 105 mph, making it a very powerful Category 2 storm.

The storm was located roughly 45 miles south of Hilton Head, South Carolina and was heading north at 12 mph, the advisory said. Matthew is expected to continue its northward trek, possibly crossing the coastline later Saturday morning, before shifting toward the northeast by afternoon. 

Matthew spent Friday swiping Florida's Atlantic coast, toppling trees onto homes and knocking out power to over one million customers, but it spared some of the most heavily populated stretches of shoreline the catastrophic blow many had feared.

Authorities warned that the danger was far from over, with hundreds of miles of coastline in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina still under threat of torrential rain and deadly storm surge as the most powerful hurricane to menace the Atlantic Seaboard in over a decade pushed north.

By Friday evening, it had left its mark on some of the South's most historic and picturesque cities with ruinous flooding and wind damage.

"There are houses that will probably not ever be the same again or not even be there," St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver lamented as battleship-gray floodwaters coursed through the streets of the 451-year-old city founded by the Spanish.

Four people died in three separate events in Florida. One woman was killed when a tree fell on her house in the Daytona area and another woman died when a tree came down on a camper in Putnam County. An elderly St. Lucie County couple also died from carbon monoxide fumes while running a generator in their garage.

President Barack Obama met with FEMA official Friday and said Hurricane Matthew "is still a dangerous hurricane; the potential for storm surge, flooding, loss of life and severe property damage continue to exist” as the storm moves north toward South Carolina and Georgia. He urged people to follow instructions from their local officials and evacuate if advised to do so.

"The governors have been on top of this and state and local officials have been on top of this, tracking most closely what is happening in your area,” he said. 

The president approved Friday afternoon a federal disaster declaration for 66 counties in central and eastern North Carolina. Gov. Pat McCrory requested the designation on Monday in anticipation of damages caused by Matthew, enabling FEMA to provide federal resources to aid in the flood recovery effort. 

Meanwhile, the magnitude of the devastation inflicted by Matthew as it roared through the Caribbean became ever clearer, with officials in Haiti raising the death toll there to nearly 300, while also cautioning that there were scores of bodies that had yet to be recorded. One report put the death toll past 800.

'Go Time'
In Florida, Matthew's storm center, or eye, hung just offshore Friday morning as it moved up the coastline, sparing communities the full force of its then-120 mph winds. 

Still, it got close enough to knock down trees and power lines, and a 107 mph gust was recorded at Cape Canaveral. By 6 p.m. Friday, 1,118,275 people were without power, according to Florida Public Service Commission figures.

In historic St. Augustine, the downtown district was impassable by noon, with a combination of seawater and rainwater. A giant oak limb had fallen in an old cemetery, and the power started going out in some neighborhoods as transformers exploded.

On Georgia's Tybee Island, where most of the 3,000 residents were evacuated, Jeff Dickey had been holding 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." 

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 have damage 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." 

As the storm closed in over the past few days, an estimated 2 million people across the Southeast were warned to clear out. 

In the end, Matthew largely skirted the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach areas of over 6 million people and hugged closer to the coast farther north, menacing such cities as Vero Beach, Daytona Beach, Cape Canaveral, St. Augustine and Jacksonville.

About 500,000 people were told to evacuate the Jacksonville area, and another half-million were under orders to clear out in Georgia. More than 300,000 fled their homes in South Carolina. The latest forecast showed the storm could also scrape the North Carolina coast.

Facebook on Friday activated it's safety check for Florida. 

Landfall in South Carolina?
Officials in South Carolina said the hurricane is expected to make landfall along the coast some time Saturday, and said the greatest threat is the storm surge, which could be eight feet 8 feet high and extend miles inland.

They urged those in the evacuation zones to move inland if they haven’t yet or at least go to a shelter.

"There is nothing safe about what is getting ready to happen... We need everybody to consider evacuating and take it seriously,” said South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

Forecasters said Matthew could dump up to 15 inches of rain in some spots and cause a storm surge of 9 feet or more.

National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb reminded people in the danger zone that storm surge is the biggest threat to life during a hurricane, even when the storm's eye remains offshore.

"If you're hoping it's is 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," he said.

Some Floridians who refused to evacuate were stranded and called for help but were told to stay put until conditions improved enough for paramedics and firefighters to get to them, said emergency operations spokesman David Waters in Brevard County, the home of Cape Canaveral.

"A family called in that the roof just flew off their home on Merritt Island," Waters said.

NASA reported mostly minor damage at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, including damage to some parked cars and an office building roof.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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