Friday 15 December 2017

Matthew weakens but Florida still braced for wind and flood damage

A car drives past a downed tree as Hurricane Matthew moves through Daytona Beach (AP)
A car drives past a downed tree as Hurricane Matthew moves through Daytona Beach (AP)
Heavy rain and wind batter Exploration Tower in Cape Canaveral (Florida Today/AP)

Hurricane Matthew spared Florida's most heavily populated stretch from a catastrophic blow on Friday but threatened some of the south's most historic and picturesque cities with ruinous flooding and wind damage as it pushed its way up the coastline.

Among the cities in its destructive path were St Augustine, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; and Charleston, South Carolina.

"There are houses that will probably not ever be the same again or not even be there," St Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver lamented as floodwaters coursed through the streets of the 451-year-old city founded by the Spanish.

Matthew - the most powerful hurricane to threaten the Atlantic Seaboard in over a decade - set off alarms as it closed in on the US, having left more than 300 people dead in Haiti.

In the end, it sideswiped Florida's Atlantic coast early on Friday, swamping streets, toppling trees onto homes and knocking out power to more than one million people. But it stayed just far enough offshore to prevent major damage to cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

One US death was reported, that of a woman whose house was hit by a tree in the Daytona area.

"It looks like we've dodged a bullet," said Republican Patrick Murphy, a Democrat whose district includes Martin County, just north of West Palm Beach.

Several north-eastern Florida cities, including Jacksonville, were still in harm's way, along with communities farther up the coast. Authorities warned that not only could the hurricane easily turn toward land, it could also cause deadly flooding with its surge of seawater.

About 500,000 people were under evacuation orders in the Jacksonville area, along with another half-million along the Georgia coast.

"If you're hoping it's is just going to pass far enough offshore that this isn't a problem anymore - that is a very, very big mistake that you could make that could cost you your life," warned National Hurricane Centre Director Rick Knabb.

St. Augustine, which is the nation's oldest permanently occupied European settlement and includes a 17th-century Spanish fortress and many historic homes, was awash in rain and seawater that authorities said could top 8ft.

"It's a really serious devastating situation," said the mayor of the city of 14,000. "The flooding is just going to get higher and higher and higher."

Historic downtown Charleston was quiet, with many stores and shops boarded up with plywood and protected by stacks of sandbags.

The city announced a midnight-to-6am curfew on Saturday, around the time the coast was expected to take the brunt of the storm.

Some of Georgia's best-known golf-and-tennis resort islands were expected to take the brunt of Matthew's storm surge, including St Simons and Tybee.


Press Association

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