Hurricane Matthew unleashed its final assault on the south-eastern US
on Saturday, inundating coastal areas of Georgia
and the Carolinas with a powerful storm surge and flooding vulnerable areas further inland.
Matthew’s last acts in its deadly week-long march north from the Caribbean, where it killed hundreds in Haiti before unleashing its fury on Florida on Friday, came as the National Hurricane Center (NHC) downgraded the storm to category 1 status, with sustained winds falling as low as 75mph.
But despite the storm’s shrinking wind field, officials warned that Matthew’s parting shots, before it follows a forecast path out into the Atlantic Ocean early on Sunday, could still prove lethal.
“It’s not just about the beaches, it’s inland where we can have loss of life,” Pat McCrory, the North Carolina
governor, said during a Saturday morning briefing at which he spoke of widespread “treacherous conditions”.
“We still have some serious issues on the beaches right now; we also have some serious issues inland that are of most concern,” he added.
The cities of Savannah, Georgia
, and Charleston, South Carolina
, saw significant flooding from Matthew, one of the most powerful storms to target the US in more than a decade, while a 6.3ft storm surge along the Savannah river, the border between Georgia and South Carolina, broke a record set during Hurricane David in 1979.
McCrory said rescue crews were operating by boat to reach residents trapped in their homes by rising waters, and that helicopter teams were on standby in case of need but had not been called on yet. He said it would be several days before the full extent of the damage caused by flooding could be assessed.
Some of the strongest overnight winds came on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, which recorded gusts of close to 90mph.
In Florida, more than 1 million customers were still without power on Saturday, and Governor Nikki Haley said another 437,000 people had lost electricity in South Carolina.
On Friday, Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration for Georgia, freeing up federal resources for recovery efforts similar to those under way in Florida
. “We don’t know how bad the damage could end up; we don’t know how severe the storm surge could end up being,” he said.
“And we’re not going to know for three, four or five days what the ultimate effects of this are.” He said he was keeping in constant contact with the governors of the four states still operating under states of emergency: Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.
Florida was largely spared the kind of major damage that Matthew dealt in the Caribbean, as the then category 4 storm, with wind gusts of 165mph, ran parallel to its coastline. NHC meteorologists said the storm’s center remained further out to sea than was originally forecast, keeping the most powerful winds away from heavily populated areas.
Areas north of Brevard County, where the Kennedy Space Center is located, bore the brunt of the storm, with roofs blown off of some buildings. The historic city of St Augustine saw severe flooding downtown and at least five deaths in Florida were attributed to Matthew, including those of a 63-year-old woman killed by a falling tree as she was outside feeding animals in Volusia County, and an elderly couple overcome by carbon monoxide fumes after running a generator in their house in St Lucie County.
In its late morning advisory on Saturday, the Miami-based NHC said the eyewall of Matthew, which hugged Florida’s east coast during its journey north before turning to the north east, finally made landfall near the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina after taking an overnight “jog” towards the shore.
“During the next 12 to 24 hours, while Matthew is hugging the US coast, the tropical storm force winds are expected to expand and strengthen in the western semi-circle and continue to affect portions of the coast within the warning area,” senior hurricane specialist Lixion Avila said.
But the NHC said it no longer expected Matthew to still be a hurricane by the time it leaves the coast later on Saturday, and would likely dissipate in the Atlantic by early next week.
Haley said it would be unsafe for many of the more than 300,000 evacuees to return to their homes in coastal areas of South Carolina before Monday at the earliest. “I know you want to see your home, I know you want to get back,” Haley said. “What I’m going to ask is patience. Most injuries, most fatalities, occur after a storm because people plan on going back in too soon. Do not plan on going home today or tomorrow; it is not going to be safe.”
She said rescue crews would be working through flooded areas to check on residents who defied the evacuation order.
“I pray that everybody was on high-level land, but those that stayed home,” she said, “it’s all search and rescue at this point. It’s about trying to save lives.”
In Haiti, the death toll rose above 900 on Saturday, officials said, and at least 350,000 people were affected by the humanitarian crisis there. Aid agencies, including the Red Cross and Oxfam, have launched urgent appeals, and the White House announced that it would increase its disaster relief team to more than 200 by Sunday.
“I would ask all Americans to go to the American Red Cross and other philanthropic agencies to make sure that we’re doing what we need to do to help people in need,” Obama said.