JACKSONVILLE, United States (AFP) — Thousands of US coastal residents who defied calls to evacuate were urged to hunker down in place Friday as deadly Hurricane Matthew powered up the southeast coast threatening widespread damage and lethal flooding.
After leaving at least 400 people dead when it hammered Haiti as a ruinous Category Four hurricane, a weaker but still potent Matthew claimed its first US casualties Friday. The storm blocked first responders in Florida from reaching two people with medical emergencies; a third died when hit by a falling tree.
Wending its way Friday up the coast, Matthew still packed 110 mile an hour winds (175 kph), with torrential rains and storm surges of up to 10 feet (3 meters) capable of devastating damage, the National Hurricane Center said.
“I just want to emphasize to everybody that this is still a really dangerous hurricane,” President Barack Obama said in remarks from the Oval Office. “The potential for storm surge, flooding, loss of life and severe property damage continues to exist.”
Millions of Americans were urged to flee their homes, but many disregarded the warnings. Obama urged coastal residents, where it is still possible, to heed the pleas to move to higher ground.
Local and state authorities struck almost apocalyptic tones in a series of increasingly urgent warnings, saying that some barrier islands could be wiped off the map.
“Pray,” said Congressman Buddy Carter, a Republican, whose district includes the Georgia coast. “Pray that this storm moves offshore and doesn’t come in to harm anyone.”
The center of Matthew, now a Category Two storm, was expected to pass near northeast Florida and coastal Georgia through tonight before raking the South Carolina coast on Saturday, weakening but retaining hurricane force until moving out to sea on Sunday, the NHC predicted.
Obama has now declared a state of emergency in North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, directing federal aid to supplement local and state efforts.
Evacuation orders covered some three million residents, with major cities like Jacksonville, Florida and Savannah, Georgia in the storm path. Several cities in South Carolina, including the largest, Charleston, installed curfews to keep people off the streets and guard against looting.
An AFP correspondent in St. Augustine, Florida, said roads there were deserted, many blocked by downed trees or flooded with ocean water. The whole city was eerily empty under darkly menacing skies.
Mayor Nancy Shaver said up to half of local residents in vulnerable zones had refused to evacuate. Officials now were urging them to stay in place as St. Augustine braced for huge storm surges — “just a tremendous amount of water to come into our city.”
“Everyone should stay put,” Shaver said. “This is not a Boy Scout camping adventure.”
Matthew was expected to dump as much as 14 inches (36 centimeters) of rain along the Georgia coast, and Governor Nathan Deal ordered the evacuation of six coastal counties that are home to nearly a half-million people.
The presidential candidates — Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton — received briefings on the storm from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Both offered messages of solidarity to those affected.
Some 2,200 people lacking transportation have been bused from the historic city of Savannah, in coastal Georgia. Officials declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew for surrounding Chatham County, and police threatened to arrest anyone caught outside.
Passengers in a last group of eight buses leaving Savannah included many children and elderly citizens. A woman in a wheelchair was accompanied by her husband and young children who carried bedding on their heads.
Authorities in Glynn County, Georgia, issued a stark warning, saying Matthew could be a 500-year event with nine-foot storm surges carrying 25-foot waves, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported. “Total devastation of the barrier islands is possible,” they said.
The South Carolina Emergency Management Division tweeted that the situation was “DIRE for barrier islands.”
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said the storm was bad and “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.”
‘Worst still to come’
Matthew was scouring its way up from Boca Raton in Florida toward Surf City, North Carolina, driving heavy rain inland.
Deserted streets across northern Florida were battered by wind and horizontal rain. At least 600,000 people lost power.
Matthew had brushed the Florida coast overnight, damaging roofs at the Kennedy Space Center but sparing the south-central coast a direct hit.
Governor Rick Scott warned however that “the worst effects are still likely to come.”
Matthew has already battered Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic — where it killed four — and the Bahamas.