Devastation as Matthew lashes Atlantic coast

Hurricane Matthew continued its march along the Atlantic coast yesterday morning, lashing two of the American South's most historic cities, flooding towns and gouging out roads. The storm was blamed for at least four deaths in Florida and knocked out power to more than one million homes and businesses as it made its way northward. In its long wake, it left well over 800 people dead in Haiti.

A traffic light hangs in an intersection as Hurricane Matthew moves through Jacksonville. Picture: AP

Yesterday, Matthew raked the Georgia and South Carolina coasts with torrential rain, staying just far enough offshore that coastal communities did not feel the force of its winds.

At 8am, Matthew was centred about 20 miles south-east of Charleston, its winds having dropped to 85mph, a Category 1 storm. That was down from 145mph when the storm roared into Haiti.

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Matthew brought heavy rain and some of the highest tides on record along the South Carolina coast. Streets and intersections in historic Charleston were flooded.

At least one wind gust of 87mph was recorded at the Hilton Head, South Carolina.

The storm also lashed Savannah, Georgia, another historic town of moss-draped squares and antebellum mansions.

More than 150,000 electric customers in South Carolina were without power, and 250,000 were in the dark in coastal Georgia. Matthew was expected to near North Carolina’s southern coast last night.

“Now is the time we ask for prayer,” Governor Nikki Haley said, bowing her head.

Matthew – the most powerful hurricane to threaten the Atlantic Seaboard in more than a decade – set off alarms as it closed in on the US.

But in the end, it skirted Florida’s heavily populated Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area, and sideswiped the cities farther north, including Daytona Beach, Vero Beach, Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville, without its centre actually coming ashore.

From there, it scraped the Georgia coast, including the resort islands of St Simons and Tybee.

Resident Steve Todd defied orders to evacuate Tybee even after the mayor called and pleaded with him to leave. As conditions rapidly deteriorated on Friday night, Todd wasn’t sounding quite so bold.

“I’m not regretting staying,” Todd said by telephone. “But I’m not going to lie: there’s a little bit of nervous tension right now.”

Todd said he was staying with friends at a third-storey flat, which had lost electricity.

“It’s throwing down right now,” Todd said. “The trees are bending over. We saw a bush fly by. It’s raining sideways now.”

In Florida, the storm gouged out several large sections of the coastal A1A highway north of Daytona Beach. “It’s pretty bad; it’s jagged all over the place,” said Oliver Shields.

The deaths in Florida included an elderly St Lucie County couple who died from carbon monoxide fumes while running a generator in their garage and two women who were killed when trees fell on a home and a camper.

About 500,000 people were under evacuation orders in the Jacksonville area, along with another half-million on the Georgia coast. More than 300,000 fled their homes in South Carolina.

St Augustine, which is the nation’s oldest permanently occupied European settlement, was left awash in rain and grey seawater.