JACKSONVILLE: A weakened Hurricane Matthew churned just off the coast of the US states of Georgia and South Carolina Saturday, threatening deadly floods after leaving more than a million people without power in Florida and claiming five lives.
Matthew—now a Category 2 system with top sustained winds of 105 miles per hour (165 km/h)—was closing in on a stretch of coast near historic colonial-era cities of Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia.
“There is a danger of life-threatening inundation during the next 36 hours along the Florida northeast coast, the Georgia coast, the South Carolina coast, and (part of) the North Carolina coast,” warned the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The storm was 45 miles (70 kilometers) south of Hilton Head, South Carolina.
Authorities in South Carolina ordered thousands to evacuate inland to shelters, where people sprawled out in school gyms.
Millions of Americans were subject to evacuation orders and curfews were slapped on cities as the lethal storm barreled north after killing at least 400 people in Haiti, and storming through Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic—where it left four dead—and the Bahamas.
“The weather experts have described Matthew as a once in a 100-year type of storm,” said Mayor Lenny Curry in Jacksonville, Florida, home to 850,000 people—nearly half of whom had been evacuated.
“We want our citizens to be safe. Our focus throughout this event has been public safety.”
Matthew savaged Haiti as a ruinous Category Four hurricane, but weakened as it approached the US mainland, where emergency services were on lockdown and millions of people were urged to evacuate.
The NHC has warned that with torrential rains and storm surges of up to 10 feet (three meters), Matthew’s storm surge is capable of devastating damage.
“This is still a really dangerous hurricane,” said President Barack Obama. “The potential for storm surge, flooding, loss of life and severe property damage continues to exist.”
Obama has declared federal states of emergency in Florida, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. Authorities struck almost apocalyptic tones, with increasingly urgent warnings to evacuate coastal and low-lying areas, but many others heeded no intention, hunkering down at home.
Torrential rain and strong winds lashed cities, bringing down trees, causing tall buildings to sway after night fell and turning normally bustling population centers into ghost towns.
At least five people died in Florida—two women killed by falling trees—a third woman from a heart attack and a couple killed by carbon monoxide as they ran a generator in their home’s garage.
Matthew damaged roofs at the Kennedy Space Center but spared Florida’s heavily populated south-central coast a direct hit. “The worst effects are still likely to come,” warned Governor Rick Scott, referring to expected flooding.
In St Augustine—a one-time Spanish colony that calls itself the nation’s oldest city— roads were deserted, many blocked by downed trees or flooded with ocean water and the city eerily empty under darkly menacing skies.
Mayor Nancy Shaver said up to half the population in vulnerable zones had refused to evacuate. Officials up and down the coast urged people to stay at home once the storm moved in.
Across the state, 1.1 million people were left without power, about 11 percent of customers, officials confirmed.