ORMOND BEACH, Fla. — Hurricane Matthew churned along Florida’s Atlantic Coast on Friday, its center remaining just offshore as the storm battered the state with punishing rain, beach-swallowing sea surges and destructive wind gusts topping 100 mph.
By late Friday afternoon, the strongest hurricane to menace the United States in a decade had weakened to a Category 2 storm, and it was clear that Florida had dodged some of the worst-case scenarios laid out by forecasters and public officials. Yet the danger wasn’t past: South Carolina was bracing for the storm’s potential landfall there Saturday, and even residents in North Carolina faced a considerable threat.
The National Hurricane Center said Friday that the storm’s center had been “hugging the coast” in Florida as it continued toward Georgia and South Carolina and warned of a surge of up to nine feet that could cause dangerous flooding.
Late Friday night, the hurricane center said “strong winds and storm surge” were also spreading north along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina and warned of “rising water levels” expected in both states into early Saturday morning.
While Matthew is expected to continue weakening over the coming days, forecasters expect it to remain a hurricane until it pivots away from the East Coast on Sunday. On Friday afternoon, as it lashed northeast Florida, hurricane-force winds extended 60 miles from the storm’s center and tropical-storm-force winds reached as far as 185 miles.
At least four deaths in the state were linked to the storm Friday, officials said. Two were medical emergencies that ambulances couldn’t reach and two were women killed by falling trees. One of these women was trying to “ride out the storm” in a camper trailer about halfway between Jacksonville and Orlando when a tree was knocked onto the camper, the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office said.
More than 1.1 million people in Florida lacked power by Friday night, according to the office of Gov. Rick Scott.
Officials there were very concerned about storm surge, which had been projected for as high as 11 feet. Scott said he was particularly worried about Jacksonville, home to more residents than any other city in the South.
On Friday afternoon, video footage on social media showed water breaking through barriers surrounding Jacksonville, which is right along the coast in the northeastern corner of Florida. A cascade of water flooded along palm trees swaying in the wind and rushed toward houses not far from the water. Wind gusts approaching 70 mph were also recorded at the Jacksonville airport.
Millions have been ordered to evacuate homes along the Southeast, and all along the coast many more stocked up on supplies and hunkered down as the storm approached. Matthew roared across the Caribbean before approaching the United States, and officials blamed it for at least 300 deaths in Haiti, a figure certain to climb once rescue workers are able to reach cutoff areas.
President Obama on Friday said that much like during Sandy in 2012, the storm surge could cause significant damage.
“I want to emphasize to everybody that this is still a really dangerous hurricane,” Obama said during remarks in the Oval Office after he met with the heads of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security.
Obama again urged residents to listen to what local officials are saying, expressing concerns about areas in northern Florida and Georgia.
“Do not be a holdout here because we can always replace property, but we can’t replace lives,” he said.
Across the Southeastern United States, officials pleaded all week with residents to take seriously the threat of a storm that would be the strongest hurricane to hit the country since Wilma in 2005.
More than 2.5 million people were told to evacuate in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, where schools and government offices alike were shuttered this week. Florida said airports in Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Melbourne were closed, while airlines canceled nearly 1,500 flights through the state. Disney World closed down Friday, and college football games from Gainesville, Fla., to Columbia, S.C., were called off or rescheduled.
Flood warnings were issued through late Friday night for northern Nassau County, in Florida not far from the Georgia line, as well as Camden and Glynn counties in southeastern Georgia, the National Weather Service said. A flash flood warning was announced for Savannah, Ga., through 5:45 a.m. Saturday.
Officials in Georgia and South Carolina announced curfews in some places intended to keep people off the roads at night. One in Charleston was to take effect at midnight and last until 6 a.m., the Charleston police said Friday night.
“Let’s not underestimate how dangerous this hurricane can be,” Gov. Nathan Deal (R) said at a news conference Friday. “There’s nothing certain about this other than the danger.”
In preparation for the storm’s arrival, more than 170 medical facilities in South Carolina had been emptied or were in the process of being evacuated by Friday evening, although one of the largest, the Medical University Hospital in Charleston, decided against evacuating its staff or 550 patients.
An estimated 355,000 people have evacuated the coastal area of South Carolina, officials said. With 69 shelters open statewide, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) again urged people to evacuate in advance of the storm’s arrival. “There is nothing safe about what is getting ready to happen,” she said.
There was even extreme caution from the Waffle House, the southern institution that has famously become a yardstick for emergency responders looking to gauge the impact disasters have on communities because of how quickly it reopens restaurants.
Waffle House said Friday that it has closed more than two dozen locations from Florida to South Carolina.
Obama had declared emergencies in four states — Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and, on Friday, North Carolina — opening up federal aid and assistance. Governors also declared emergencies and activated thousands of National Guard members to help with the response.
Forecasts had used dire language when describing the storm’s potential impact. The National Weather Service warned that brutal winds could leave some places “uninhabitable for weeks or months.” The National Hurricane Center called it “extremely dangerous” and spoke grimly of flooding dangers.
While northern Florida saw the brunt of the storm Friday, residents of Palm Beach County to the south were taking down shutters, raking up leaves and cleaning up the effects of the storm.
“We got lucky,” David Pinciss. He noted that the state’s governor had been dramatic in news conferences, but also said he was glad he evacuated.
“Whatever the governor said was going to happen didn’t happen, and that’s good,” he said.
At the Breakers Hotel on Palm Beach, Mark Reid, director of golf and grounds, was treating his team of 30 workers to lunch Friday.
“They all left their homes this morning before they even had a chance to take their shutters down to come into work, and I’m grateful for that,” Reid said. He added that the oceanfront hotel’s grounds suffered no damage. “Just a few palm fronds to clean up,” Reid said. “We are in good shape, and we’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”
Matthew continued to make its way north through the day Friday, and the National Weather Service reported a series of blistering winds across the Florida coastline.
A wind gust of 68 mph was reported in Daytona Beach, while gusts topping 100 mph were recorded in northern Brevard County, east of Orlando, according to the weather service. By the afternoon, gusts of around 80 mph were registered in Flagler Beach and St. Augustine.
Flash flood warnings in the Jacksonville area were announced through Friday evening, and flood warnings were also issued in parts of Volusia, Brevard and Seminole counties.
In Volusia County, officials said there were initial reports of major damage that included a destroyed iconic fishing pier in Daytona Beach; structural damage to business and homes; fallen trees, flooding and widespread power outages. But the storm’s shift to the east eased some of the risks that had been feared.
“I don’t think 30 miles has ever meant so much to a community, said Volusia County Manager Jim Dinneen. “We are very fortunate the eye of the storm stayed 30 miles from the coast. I believe it made all the difference in how catastrophic the damage could have been.”
Authorities said they would continue to enforce a curfew until 7 a.m Saturday and said they would additional deliveries of food and water to area shelters to ensure needs are met.
As the storm moved toward Daytona Beach on Friday morning, trees were whipped around and downed branches and power lines dotted the roads. Only police cars could be seen driving around. Just to the south in Ormond Beach, a neighbor’s tree landed on the roof of Lynn Kearns’s home, but she still had no plans to leave.
“Our street doesn’t usually flood,” said Kearns, who has lived in this part of Florida for nearly 30 years. The pine tree dangled off the roof as Kearns spoke.
Her windows were boarded up and she was watching the wind whip trees along the street, part of which was already flooded. But she said leaving would be too difficult for her mother and two dogs.
At a Hampton Inn in Ormond Beach, guests ate breakfast Friday by flashlight and LED candlelight after the electricity went out earlier that morning.
After a night of howling winds and whistling gusts, the power went out at 7:30 a.m., and through the morning large raindrops popped against windows as sheets of rain swept in all directions.
Cochise Israel lives a half-block from the beach and would ordinarily have stayed there. He said he prefers to be in the home when the roof tears off so he can move furniture into dry areas, adding that he favors “fighting it off as opposed to going back to complete destruction.”
“I’ve always rode them out,” said Israel, 38. “If anyone is in trouble, I have chainsaws and help them get out. I’ve always been the hero.”
He spent much of the week helping board up homes and fill sandbags for his older neighbors who opted to ride out the storm. But he said he had little choice but to leave this time, because he had to take care of his 97-year-old great aunt, Dorothy Butler, who suffers from dementia.
“It’s kind of hard to be so far away,” Israel said.
As guests gathered around the hotel doors to watch the squalls, the temperature in the rooms continued to rise. One of the guests, Pat Sheil, had called Tuesday to reserve a spot at the Hampton Inn for her and her cat, because her manufactured home was squarely in the path of Matthew’s winds.
“I don’t know what I’m going back to,” said Sheil, 73.
Berman reported from Washington. Renae Merle and Lacey McLaughlin in Daytona Beach, Fla.; Lori Rozsa in Palm Beach, Fla.; Dustin Waters in Charleston, S.C.; and Angela Fritz, Brian Murphy and Susan Hogan in Washington contributed to this report, which was first published at 9:57 a.m. and will be updated throughout the day.