Hurricane Matthew batters southeastern US as authorities warn of ‘once in a century storm’
Cities including Savannah and Charleston in South Carolina ordered dusk to dawn curfews to keep people off the streets and guard against looting
Hurricane Matthew lashed the southeastern US coast with driving wind and rain Friday, flooding streets with ocean water, leaving more than a million people without power and claiming four lives.
Millions of Americans were subject to evacuation orders and curfews were slapped on cities as the lethal storm barrelled north after killing hundreds of 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 4 hurricane, but weakened as it approached the US mainland, where emergency services were on lockdown and millions of people were urged to evacuate.
The National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said Matthew packed 175km/h winds, with torrential rains and storm surges of up to three metres 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.”
He has declared federal states of emergency in Florida, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. Authorities struck almost apocalyptic tones, with increasingly urgent warning to evacuate coastal and low-lying areas, but many 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 centres into ghost towns.
At least four people died in Florida – two women killed by falling trees – a third woman from a heart attack and an 82-year-old man who experienced stroke-like symptoms and whom paramedics could not reach.
Matthew damaged roofs at the Kennedy Space Centre but spared Florida’s heavily populated south-central coast a direct hit. “The worst effects are still likely to come,” warned Governor Rick Scott.
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 per cent of customers, officials confirmed.
The centre of Matthew, now a Category Two storm, was expected to pass near northeast Florida and coastal Georgia overnight into Saturday before raking the South Carolina coast, weakening but retaining hurricane force until moving out to sea on Sunday, the NHC predicted.
Evacuation orders covered some three million residents, with cities like Jacksonville and Savannah, Georgia in the storm path.
Cities including Savannah and Charleston in South Carolina ordered dusk to dawn curfews to keep people off the streets and guard against looting.
“Pray,” Republican Congressman Buddy Carter, whose district includes the Georgia coast, told a news conference. “Pray that this storm moves offshore and doesn’t come in to harm anyone.”
Matthew was expected to dump up to 36cm of rain along the Georgia coast, where Governor Nathan Deal ordered six counties home to nearly a half-million people to evacuate.
The presidential candidates – Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton – received briefings on the storm from homeland security and each offered messages of solidarity to those affected.
Around 2,200 vulnerable people, including the sick, the elderly and young families, were bused out of Savannah. Officials threatened to arrest anyone caught defying a nighttime curfew.
“To save my life, I’d leave home anytime,” said Eugene Johnson, 40, a fork-lift operator leaving with his 76-year-old father who recently suffered a stroke and has a heart condition. “You gotta evacuate. If you stay, that’s like signing a death certificate. I don’t want to die, I’ve got to take care of my dad.”
The South Carolina Emergency Management Division tweeted that the situation was “DIRE for barrier islands” most exposed to the ocean.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said the storm was “getting worse”. More than 300,000 of the 500,000 people in at-risk areas had been evacuated but that “was not enough.”
Some coastal islands, Haley added, “will be under water”.