Deadly Hurricane Matthew soaks southeastern US coast

Scott Malone and Harriet McLeod, Reuters

Posted at Oct 09 2016 12:13 AM

Storm surge and waves break over the sea wall onto a flooded section of East Battery Street at the southern-most tip of the city as Hurricane Matthew arrives in Charleston, South Carolina late October 7, 2016. Jonathan Drake, Reuters

JACKSONVILLE BEACH/CHARLESTON - Hurricane Matthew's winds diminished on Saturday as it headed towards the Carolinas after killing almost 900 people in Haiti and causing major flooding and widespread power outages in the southeastern United States.

The storm, which left flooding and wind damage in Florida, was soaking coastal Georgia and South Carolina on Saturday, but packing a diminished punch. Wind speeds had dropped to less than 85 miles per hour (135 kph), making it a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest on the Saffir-Simpson scale of 1 to 5.

At least four deaths in Florida were attributed to the storm, which knocked out power to least 1.5 million households and businesses in the southeastern United States.

In Florida, 775,000 are still without power, according to state utilities, while in South Carolina 433,000 had no power, Governor Nikki Haley said. Georgia Power said at least 275,000 were without power in the state.

Roads in Jackson Beach were littered with wood, including sections of a historic quarter-mile-long pier, and foot-deep (15 cm) water clogged some intersections. Moderate damage could be seen on beachfront businesses, with fences and awnings torn down.

"We rode out the storm. It wasn't this bad at our house, but here there's a lot of damage," said Zowi Cuartas, 18, as he watched people pick up shattered wooden signs knocked down by the wind and waves near the beach. "We were prepared to lose our house."

Streets in downtown Charleston were flooding Saturday morning up to the tops of tires on some cars. At the High Battery at Charleston peninsula's tip, waves were close to topping the sea wall with spray splashing onto East Bay Street.

"It blew like hell," said resident and writer Roger Pinckney, 70.

The toll in the United States was far less devastating than in Haiti, where at least 877 people were killed, a death toll that ticked up as information trickled in from remote areas, according to a Reuters tally of tolls from officials.

Matthew rampaged through Haiti's western peninsula on Tuesday with 145 mph (233 kph) winds and torrential rain. Some 61,500 people were in shelters, officials said, after the storm hurled the sea into fragile coastal villages.

The Mesa Verde, a US Navy amphibious transport dock ship, was en route to Haiti to support relief efforts. The ship has heavy-lift helicopters, bulldozers, fresh-water delivery vehicles and two surgical operating rooms.

FOUR KILLED IN FLORIDA

The NHC predicted the storm would possibly be striking the US coast on Saturday morning or afternoon.

"Regardless of whether or not the center makes landfall, hurricane-force winds in the northern eyewall will lash much of the coast of South Carolina," an NHC advisory said.

Matthew sideswiped Florida's coast with winds of up to 120 mph (195 kph) but did not make landfall there.

Governors in several states held news conferences on Saturday morning, including Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory warned that storm surges and high winds could cause serious problems. He said he was "extremely concerned" that the hurricane downgrade will cause residents not to take warnings seriously.

Forecasters warned of flooding as 15 inches (40 cm) of rain were expected to fall in parts of the region along with massive storm surges and high tides.

Some 8 inches (20 cm) of rain had fallen in the Savannah, Georgia area where Matthew downed trees and caused flooding.

Though gradually weakening, Matthew - which triggered mass evacuations along the US coast - was forecast to remain a hurricane until it begins moving away from the US Southeast coast on Sunday, according to the NHC.

President Barack Obama and officials urged people to heed safety instructions.

As the storm moved north, Florida officials urged residents who had evacuated not to rush back to homes that still lacked power on streets clogged with debris.

"You are going to continue to see some flooding, damage and power outages," Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry told reporters on Saturday, adding that the roads into the beach area would be reopened to residents around noon (1600 GMT).