Hurricane Matthew hammers Georgia and Carolinas with floods as it departs

The storm has been downgraded to category 1 and was forecast to head out into the Atlantic – but not before posing a lethal threat inland, governor says

The death toll from Hurricane Matthew in the US rose to at least 10 on Saturday as the weakening storm finally made landfall and inundated parts of Georgia and the Carolinas with severe coastal and inland flooding.

Authorities in North Carolina reported that three people were killed in the state when they were trapped in a submerged vehicle and that another had died in a crash in Samson County. Georgia police reported three deaths on Saturday, and four deaths were earlier reported in Florida.

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.

Despite the storm’s shrinking wind field, officials had warned that Matthew’s powerful storm surge, which reached more than nine feet in some places, could still prove lethal.

“This is a very serious and dangerous storm,” North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, said during a Saturday afternoon briefing. “We don’t want to see any more loss of life.

“We have rivers that could be cresting on Monday. Hundreds of structures could be impacted,” he added, pointing out it could be several days before the full extent of the damage was known.

Matthew made landfall at about 11am on Saturday in South Carolina and continued its slow path east along the coast. The NHC predicted it would no longer be a hurricane as early as Saturday night, and would probably dissipate in the Atlantic Ocean sometime during Monday.

But Dr Rick Knabb, the NHC director, said in a tweet that the storm’s weakening did not mean its threat had passed. “Do not focus on the category or the circulation center, focus on the life-threatening surge and inland flooding in SC and NC,” he said.

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.

Florida reeling from Hurricane Matthew as storm hits Georgia

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, meanwhile, 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, according to some estimates, 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.


Richard Luscombe in Miami

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hurricane Matthew weakens but storm surge stokes flooding fears
Florida, Georgia and South Carolina cities at risk from high water as South Carolina governor warns: ‘This is going to hurt’

Richard Luscombe in Miami

07, Oct, 2016 @10:52 PM

Article image
Hurricane Matthew's US death toll rises to 33 as flooding chaos continues
Authorities warn levels of rivers in North Carolina are rising at record level, as a police-involved shooting during ‘high water incident’ is under investigation

Richard Luscombe in Miami

11, Oct, 2016 @5:23 PM

Article image
Hurricane Dorian: 'We're at the frontline of climate change but we don't cause it', says Barbados PM – as it happened
Mia Mottley, PM of Barbados, urges action to help Caribbean islands as regional leaders fly to Bahamas to see Hurricane Dorian’s destruction

Amanda Holpuch in New York

05, Sep, 2019 @9:07 PM

Article image
'Like an atomic bomb': Hurricane Michael leaves trail of devastation
Florida and Georgia count cost of one of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit US as downgraded storm dumps rain on Carolinas

Richard Luscombe in Miami and agencies

11, Oct, 2018 @10:13 PM

Article image
A mighty howling in the heavens: riding out Hurricane Matthew in South Carolina
We locals on Daufuskie Island rejected the governor’s warnings to evacuate. The storm left utter destruction – and it brought the community together

Roger Pinckney in Daufuskie, South Carolina

16, Oct, 2016 @11:30 AM

Article image
Florida spared worst of Hurricane Matthew but deadly menace still looms
Storm remains a serious threat and heads to Georgia after thousands of Floridians lose power, and death toll in Haiti nears 500

Richard Luscombe

07, Oct, 2016 @3:15 PM

Article image
'Waffle House Index': locations in storm path close in sign of Matthew's severity
Company renowned for staying open during inclement weather says 25 locations in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina will close

Mazin Sidahmed

07, Oct, 2016 @4:02 PM

Article image
Hurricane Matthew: storm surge threat to Carolinas and Georgia - as it happened
Death toll in Haiti reaches 877, officials say, as Florida governor declares state of emergency

Chris Johnston, Calla Wahlquist and Bonnie Malkin

08, Oct, 2016 @10:59 AM

Article image
Hurricane Sally: devastating floods expected as heavy rains move north
Sally continues torrential rains over Alabama and Georgia, with tornadoes possible across Georgia and northern Florida

Guardian staff and agencies

17, Sep, 2020 @12:50 PM

Article image
At least six dead as storm blows through Carolinas – as it happened
Hurricane Michael leaves at least six dead after making landfall near Mexico Beach on Wednesday

Erin Durkin

11, Oct, 2018 @8:08 PM