Hurricane Matthew, weakened but still a formidable storm, continued to pound the northern Florida coastline on Friday afternoon, renewing fears of life-threatening flooding in Jacksonville and other low-lying, heavily populated cities further north, including Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.
After the category 3 storm’s punishing slow crawl up Florida’s eastern coast earlier in the day, which left more than a million residents without power, focus turned away from the strength of its wide wind field and towards the threat posed by the substantial storm surge.
The National Hurricane Center downgraded Matthew to a category 2 storm in its 5pm advisory but said that the surge, forecast to reach up to nine feet in vulnerable areas such as the St John’s river that runs through central Jacksonville, could lead to “life-threatening inundation” during the next 36 hours as far as Cape Fear, North Carolina.
NHC senior hurricane specialist Lixion Avila said that Matthew, which killed hundreds in Haiti during its earlier march through the Caribbean, still had more misery to spread. “We have been very fortunate that Matthew’s strongest winds have remained a short distance offshore of the Florida coast thus far, but this should not be a reason to let down our guard,” he said in the advisory.
“The water hazards remain, even if the core of Matthew remains offshore.”
More than 300,000 coastal residents of South Carolina were urged to evacuate ahead of the forecast arrival of the storm early on Saturday, with the state’s governor, Nikki Haley, warning: “This is going to hurt.”
“Our barrier islands, it’s the biggest concern we have right now, the fact that we need people to move. It will start to be too late for anyone to evacuate so we still encourage all of you to take shelter somewhere above ground.”
Her fears were echoed by Barack Obama in a Friday afternoon address. “Many of you will remember Hurricane Sandy, where initially people thought, ‘this doesn’t look as bad as we thought,’ and then suddenly you get a massive storm surge and a lot of people were severely affected,” the US president said.
“I just want to emphasize to everybody that this is still a really dangerous hurricane [and] that the potential for storm surge, flooding, loss of life and severe property damage continues to exist.”
Obama also urged Americans to support the efforts of the Red Cross and other aid agencies to provide disaster relief in Haiti, where hundreds of thousands are homeless and in need of immediate assistance, according to the United Nations.
“Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world,” Obama said. “We know that hundreds of people have lost their lives and that there’s been severe property damage and they’re going to need help rebuilding.”
Friday afternoon’s further downgrading of Matthew to a category 2 storm, with sustained winds down to 110 miles an hour, continued the trend through the day, which started with the storm as a 165mph monster, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in living memory.
“We still have a long way to go. It could be the worst part of this is still to come,” Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, said at a late-morning briefing. “The eye has not made direct landfall, [but] it still has time to make a direct hit.”
Scott said assessments from more southerly parts of Florida, battered overnight by tropical storm-force winds, were just beginning to come in, but earlier fears of potentially catastrophic damage appeared to be unfounded.
But authorities reported five storm-related deaths in Florida, four in St Lucie County. A 58-year-woman and an 82-year-old man died in separate incidents when first responders were unable to go out at the height of the storm, and an elderly couple died in hospital after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator they were running in a garage. In Volusia County a woman was reportedly killed after a tree fell on her house.
Late on Thursday and through Friday, Matthew lashed Volusia and Brevard counties in Florida, including the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, with torrential rain and sustained winds as the storm’s outer eyewall nudged parallel to the coast. Nasa reported limited roof damage from 107mph gusts, but no effect to its launchpads, which are constructed to withstand 125mph winds.
Downed power lines and fallen trees appeared to be the worst of the damage in Martin and St Lucie counties to the south. Bill Snyder, the Martin County sheriff, said he believed his county had “dodged a bullet”.
“This could have been much worse,” he said. “It’s going to be a busy day but we are in good shape and God has truly blessed our area.”
Significantly, the NHC is predicting for the first time that the storm will degenerate into a tropical depression at the end of its five-day forecast period, reversing earlier projections that Matthew would loop back on itself and line up a second assault on the south Florida coast as a weak hurricane or tropical storm early next week.
The Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, issued a statement urging residents to stay safe during and after the storm.
“My thoughts and prayers are with everyone in the path of Hurricane Matthew, and my heart is broken for the victims and their families in Haiti, Cuba, the Caribbean and Florida,” she said.
“Stay safe and know that America is with you. In times of disaster we pull together.”
The Republican nominee, Donald Trump, tweeted: “Thoughts & prayers with the millions of people in the path of Hurricane Matthew. Look out for neighbors, and listen to your local officials.”
In Orlando, where hotel rooms were scarce following the evacuation of thousands from coastal areas 60 miles east, theme parks were preparing to reopen on Saturday. Disney World closed on Friday due to weather for only the fourth time in its 45-year history.