Hurricane Matthew began battering South Carolina on Saturday and was downgraded to a Category 1 storm as high winds drove the storm inland, flooding low-lying areas.
Forecasters say the storm was at Category 2 strength as it moved north just off the U.S. East Coast early Saturday before coming ashore around 5 a.m. ET at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, with 170 km/h winds.
Power was out on the resort island and its two roads were blocked by trees as the storm was downgraded to a Category 1 system a few hours later as it approached Charleston, South Carolina, with maximum sustaining winds of 140 km/hr.
It made landfall north of Charleston, near the town of McClellanville, where it caused serious flooding.
“We have 10 to 15 inches of rain (250 to 380 millimetres) expected. That’s a lot in southeastern North Carolina. And if you are in a low-lying area, and you know you are in a low-lying area that’s flooded with a lot less rain than that, it’s time to get out of there,” North Carolina Gov. Pat MCrory said in a news briefing Saturday.
“This has the potential for North Carolina to see the worst flooding since Hurricane Floyd [in 1999],” he said. “We just don’t know yet because there could be some changes in this storm pattern, as we have seen during the past 72 hours.”
Matthew lashed Georgia and then South Carolina after killing at least four people in Florida and knocking out power to more than one million homes and businesses.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center says Matthew will reach North Carolina’s southern coast by Saturday night.
Heavy rain, a potentially life-threatening storm surge and powerful winds will affect the region.
Flash flooding is forecast for portions of eastern Georgia, eastern South Carolina, eastern North Carolina and southeast Virginia.
Matthew continued its trek north northeastward after battering Georgia, where power to 120,000 people was knocked out Friday night.
The storm has been blamed for at least half a dozen deaths in the United States, but the highest number of fatalities were in Haiti.
Hurricane Matthew killed almost 900 people and displaced tens of thousands in Haiti. The number of deaths in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, surged to at least 877 on Friday as information trickled in from remote areas previously cut off by the storm.
Matthew smashed through Haiti’s western peninsula on Tuesday with 233 km/h winds and torrential rain.
At least three towns in the hills and coast of Haiti’s fertile western tip reported dozens of people killed, including the farming village of Chantal where the mayor said 86 people died, mostly when trees crushed houses. He said 20 others were missing.
In Florida, 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-storey 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.
“We have been very fortunate that Matthew’s strongest winds have remained a short distance offshore of the Florida and Georgia coasts thus far, but this should not be a reason to let down our guard,” the Hurricane Center said in a forecast discussion.
Storm surge in historic town
St. Augustine, Fla., which is the nation’s oldest permanently occupied European settlement and includes a 17th-century Spanish fortress and many old homes turned into bed-and-breakfasts, was awash in rain and grey seawater that authorities said could top 2.4 metres.
The town’s pier has been destroyed and much of its coastal road was left under water due to a storm surge.
“It’s a really serious devastating situation,” Mayor Nancy Shaver said of the town of 14,000. By midday Saturday, much of the street flooding in downtown St. Augustine had drained.
Historic downtown Charleston, usually bustling with tourists, 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, about the time the coast was expected to take the brunt of the storm.
Matthew lashed 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.
Theme parks reopen
Florida’s major theme parks are up and running again after closing down in advance of the hurricane.
Walt Disney World opened the gates to all four of its parks — Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom — at 8 a.m. ET Saturday. The water parks and Disney Springs are also open on Saturday.
Universal Studios, SeaWorld and Legoland Florida Resort were also reopening on Saturday morning.
The theme parks closed early on Thursday as the hurricane Matthew the state and all were shut down on Friday.