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Published on October 07, 2016

Hurricane Matthew Batters Florida, Leaving Thousands Without Power

Threatens catastrophic damage on march along coast toward Georgia, South Carolina

As featured in the Wall Street Journal

Hurricane Matthew barreled along Florida’s Atlantic coast Friday morning, dumping rain and threatening to cause catastrophic damage on its northern march along the coast toward Georgia and South Carolina.

Matthew’s maximum sustained winds were 115 miles an hour, a Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale, according to the National Hurricane Center’s 2 p.m. forecast.

Hurricane-force winds extended 60 miles out from the center of the storm, which was expected to bring pounding rain and surges to coastal areas.

Early Friday, Matthew’s path shifted slightly to the east as the storm skirted up alongside Florida’s coastline, sparing the state’s southern reaches from extreme damage, but officials warned of continued, life-threatening danger.

A slight variation in Matthew’s route and speed could have a big impact on the intensity of wind and storm surge for the rest of the southeastern coast, said Anantha Aiyyer, associate professor of atmospheric sciences at North Carolina State University.

”It’s still a powerful storm,” he said, and people on the coast in northern Florida, Georgia and South Carolina should take heed.

The documented death toll in Haiti from Hurricane Matthew reached 271, a Haitian government official said Friday, though there were unconfirmed reports of many more fatalities. The hurricane is also linked to at least two deaths in Florida, both in St. Lucie County, because the storm made it impossible for rescue crews to reach people suffering medical emergencies, a spokeswoman for the county Fire District said.

In one case, a woman in her late 50s suffered cardiac arrest around 1:20 a.m., and has since died, spokeswoman Catherine Chaney said. An 82-year-old man died after an apparent stroke and breathing problems a couple of hours later, she said. Someone rushed him to the hospital by car, but he died, Ms. Chaney said.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley warned that the outlook may be brightening for Florida, but it is darkening for the South Carolina coast. Current forecasts call for Matthew to make landfall or come very close to the Charleston area, she said, prompting flooding, blocked roads and lengthy power outages.

“It’s getting worse,” Gov. Haley said, “so we are looking at major storm surges, major winds, wet grounds.”

President Barack Obama also urged continued caution, reminding people that Matthew remained “a really dangerous hurricane” despite being downgraded to a Category 3 storm early Friday. He encouraged Georgia residents to listen to warnings as the storm travels north.

"You need to pay attention to them, do what they say, do not be a holdout here because we can always replace property, but we can’t replace lives,” Mr. Obama said, addressing reporters Friday.

About 310,000 people have evacuated the South Carolina coast, Gov. Haley said, but many haven't. She said she is particularly worried about 100 people who declined to evacuate remote Daufuskie Island, reachable by ferry about 3 miles from Hilton Head.

“It is going to be underwater,” she said, and people need to leave today.

As it churned north, the hurricane’s western eyewall passed Daytona Beach, in Volusia County, where transformers caused fires and downed power lines, one county official said. Volusia County had about 177,000 customers offline, according to Florida Power & Light.

“The highest winds are upon us,” said Joanne Magley, community information director for the county, in a Facebook live community update at 12:30 p.m. ET. Evacuation ambulances and rescue services weren’t able to answer calls at that time, because of storm conditions. People who felt their lives were in danger should seek safety at a nearby shelter, she said.

Hurricane conditions battered central Florida Friday morning, according to the hurricane center. A buoy off Cape Canaveral reported a gust of 97 miles an hour, the center said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said early Friday that he was worried about the storm’s pending impact on Jacksonville, in the northeast corner of the state, and Nassau County, a low-lying area just north of Jacksonville that borders Georgia and is also vulnerable to storm surge.

”We’re very focused on Jacksonville” and the flooding potential there, Mr. Scott said during a press conference. “Let’s remember the storm has only passed half our state. This is not over.”

As the storm approached Jacksonville Friday afternoon, staff at St. Vincent’s Medical Center Riverside moved patients out of rooms that face the St. Johns River, where wind gusts could shatter windows. Accelerating winds bent palm trees sideways, according to Tom VanOsdol, the chief operating officer for three Ascension hospitals around Jacksonville, Fla.

The hospital braced for a storm surge late Friday of six to 10 feet, which could breach its concrete storm wall and possibly flood the hospital’s first floor, he said. Officials used sandbags and heavy plastic wrap to protect pharmacy, radiology and imaging equipment vulnerable to flooding, Mr. VanOsdol said.

More than 22,000 Floridians are in shelters, he said, and more than 1 million customers in Florida were without power as of Friday midafternoon.

Brevard County, where mandatory evacuation orders were issued for 90,000 people living on barrier islands, in low-lying areas and in mobile homes, saw a top wind speed of 108 mph, right before 7 a.m., according to the Brevard County Emergency Management Office. About 201,000 customers in the county were recently without power, according to Florida Power & Light.

By midmorning, the storm winds had lightened to tropical-storm force and the emergency management teams were out assessing the damage to the causeways leading to the barrier islands, which were still closed.

A hurricane warning was in effect for much of Florida’s eastern coast, from Sebastian Inlet in Brevard County to the South Santee River in South Carolina, north of Charleston. The governors of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas declared states of emergency.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said rescue boats and trucks capable of driving through high water were staged along the 300 miles of the North Carolina coast. He said he expected erosion and over-washed roads on some beaches and significant power outages along the coast.

But he said he was also worried about the amount of water that could inundate the coastal areas, both in storm surge and rainfall. Gov. McCrory said he expected 6 to 12 additional inches of rain in the central and northeastern coastal areas, some of which have already flooded. “That’s a lot of water, and it’s very dangerous water, especially in low-lying areas.”

A mandatory evacuation remained in effect Friday in Georgia for all coastal areas from I-95 to the water. Evacuation routes leading to hotels, shelters or friends and family were crowded into the night as people poured north into Middle Georgia and Atlanta.

Most of Chatham County, with a population of 278,000 and home to Savannah, the state’s third largest city, was put under the evacuation order. The Chatham County Emergency Management Agency warned people needing help leaving that all public transportation out of the county would stop by noon Friday.

The Georgia Ports Authority, which operates some of the East Coast’s busiest ports at Savannah and Brunswick, Ga., closed operations in anticipation of the storm.

Caravans of utility trucks were cruising down Georgia highways Friday afternoon to prepare for the post-storm restoration effort. Hotels across Georgia, to Atlanta and beyond, were filled with evacuees from the coast.

In Florida, Volusia County and Brevard County, which includes Cape Canaveral. could feel the fiercest winds, according to Florida’s Mr. Scott. He warned that Matthew could deliver 4 to 8 inches of rain, and in some areas up to 12 inches. He said a storm surge could reach 5 to 9 feet.

More than 1.5 million Floridians are in areas designated for either mandatory or voluntary evacuations, stretching from the Fort Lauderdale area in the south to the Jacksonville area in the north.

—Melanie Evans, Elizabeth Bernstein, Allison Kite, Valerie Bauerlein, Jon Kamp and Cameron McWhirter contributed to this article.

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