Weakened Hurricane Matthew largely skirts coast but makes presence known
October 9, 2016 12:01 AM
Sean Rayford/The New York Times
A group of cyclists brave conditions near the historic Battery as Hurricane Matthew pushed ashore in Charleston, S.C., on Saturday.
By Jess Bidgood, Alan Binder and Richard Parez-Peaa / The New York Times
CHARLESTON, S.C. — After pounding Florida’s east coast, Hurricane Matthew brought flooding, blackouts and road closures to coastal Georgia and the Carolinas on Saturday, cutting off many communities even as it weakened and pushed northward.
But the hurricane’s eye remained mostly offshore, sparing the Atlantic Coast the kind of direct strike that devastated Haiti, where the storm hit earlier in the week as a powerful Category 4 storm and killed hundreds of people.
At least 10 deaths have been attributed to Hurricane Matthew in the United States, and more than 1 million people have lost power.
But the storm grew steadily weaker Saturday as it crawled up the coast. The National Weather Service said the top sustained winds had dropped to 75 mph, barely strong enough to qualify it as a hurricane, though still capable of bringing heavy rain and flooding as the hurricane’s bands passed through the Carolinas.
The storm made landfall Saturday morning near McClellanville, about 30 miles northeast of Charleston, as a Category 1 hurricane.
Despite reports of serious damage in some areas, for the United States, in any case, the hurricane seemed destined to be remembered mostly as an enormous inconvenience rather than a catastrophe. Authorities repeatedly urged residents who were advised to evacuate not to rush back to their homes.
“When the storm hits, you’re praying — and then now the frustration sets in,” said Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina. “And what I am going to ask for you is patience. Most injuries, most fatalities, occur after a storm because people attempt to move in too soon.”
In the elegant heart of this city of pastel buildings, floodwater breached the seawall along East Battery Street. They turned parts of Market Street and East Bay Street into canals and poured into Charleston’s market, reaching well up the legs of the tables inside.
When Parrish Stephen Rowland, who spent Friday night hunkered down inside his apartment in a public housing complex on King Street, wanted something to eat late Saturday morning, he had to wade through waist-deep water.
“I’ll find a shelter somewhere and just get some food and come back,” said Mr. Rowland, speaking casually, even though he stood in so much water that nearby gas pumps were half-submerged.
On Saturday, the economic toll of the hurricane was beginning to emerge; officials said it was the strongest storm to hit the Charleston area since Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
Caroline Wright, a catering manager, said her company alone had 20 canceled weddings over the weekend. And her roommate’s retail store had already been closed for five days.
“It’s a wonderful place to live,” Ms. Wright said, “and unfortunately, this is one of the negatives of living here.”
The storm passed the Charleston area at low tide. The water rose higher along the barrier islands south of here, where the surge peaked close to high tide. On sparsely populated Tybee Island, Georgia, near Savannah, the ocean rose 12.5 feet, breaking the record set during Hurricane David in 1979, the Chatham County Emergency Management Agency said. The island recorded gusts up to 94 mph.
The storm dropped 9 inches or more of rain across the low-lying areas of Georgia and South Carolina — Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah recorded almost 17 inches — and flash flood warnings were in effect throughout the region.
Roads were clogged or impassible throughout much of the region, with stretches of Interstate 95 shut down. Even in the parts that were open, the interstate in Georgia was an obstacle course of debris, forcing cars and trucks to drive onto the waterlogged shoulders to avoid fallen pine trees that blocked the entire road. Police cars were parked at every exit, blocking drivers from heading toward the coast.
“Your safety is in doubt if you attempt to go east of I-95, and that’s why we’re there — to make sure that that doubt is very clear in your mind,” said Col. Mark W. McDonough of the Georgia State Patrol. “If we have to be the heavy, that is exactly what we will do.”
Countless other roads were blocked by downed power lines, fallen trees and windblown debris, and bridges were ordered closed.
State and local officials said it would be hours or days before they knew the full extent of the damage. But people all along the coast Saturday got their first glimpses of the recovery ahead.
Amid the odor of sewage in St. Augustine, Florida, Sabine Juskowiak looked down at her muddy, flooded-out shop floor and the broken display case that once showcased dozens of colorful French macarons. She opened her store just two months ago, after moving from France with dreams of working in old St. Augustine, a town that more than any in Florida reminded her of Europe.
“We lose all this,” she said in her tentative English.
“The water come in up to here,” Ms. Juskowiak added, pointing 2 feet up the wall of the building where she stored, and lost, 7,000 macarons.
Utility companies along the coast rushed to restore electricity, and nearly 900,000 homes and businesses in Florida remained without power Saturday. In South Carolina, more than 400,000 customers lacked electricity, as did about 300,000 in Georgia.
Those states, along with North Carolina, ordered the evacuation of areas that are home to nearly 3 million people. On the Central and South Florida coasts, some people who had left for public shelters, hotels or friends’ homes inland were beginning to return.
Although the region seems to have been spared the full wrath of the hurricane, the five-day forecast from the National Hurricane Center hinted that the storm could loop back and hit Florida again.
The curving path you often see with a storm, heading up the coast, sometimes droops like a candle that’s melting in the middle.
This forecast is unusual, but not unique. Hurricane Ivan, for example, also looped the loop back in 2004.
Christopher W. Landsea, science and operations officer at the National Hurricane Center, said that the Bermuda high, a persistent zone of high pressure that steers many hurricanes westward across the Atlantic, is also largely responsible for blunting Hurricane Matthew’s progress toward the north. The Bermuda High, he said, has re-formed to the north to shunt the storm southward.
“It’s fairly uncommon, but it does happen every once in a while,” he said.
If the storm does loop back around, however, expect it to have weakened substantially. The current forecast calls for the hurricane to be reduced to nothing more than a tropical depression, with wind speeds of no more than 40 miles per hour, Mr. Landsea said. But he warned, “Our wind-speed forecasting skill is less than our storm-track forecasting skill,” so “we don’t want to make any assumption that there’s not going to be any impact when it comes back around.”
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