CHARLESTON, S.C. — Hurricane Matthew weakened to a Category 1 storm on Saturday, but it packed a strong enough punch to down trees and deliver a 6-foot storm surge and severe flooding to historic downtown Charleston before moving up the North Carolina coast.
The deadly hurricane, which roared out of the Caribbean, killing hundreds in Haiti, officially made landfall Saturday morning 40 miles northeast of the South Carolina port city.
At least 10 U.S. deaths have been attributed to Matthew since it hit the Florida coastline as a Category 4 hurricane.
No deaths have been reported in South Carolina but more than 800,000 homes and businesses were without power as darkness settled over the state Saturday night.
For days, government officials and meteorologists alike issued dire warnings to coastal residents as the storm approached. But some Charleston business owners who left their businesses returned Saturday to find themselves pleasantly surprised at the lack of damage.
“I guess we dodged a bullet for the most part,” said Kevin LePrince, owner of LePrince Fine Art, which was protected by plywood sheets. An interior camera, he said, didn’t show any damage.
Farther down King Street, Geemeen Kim, owner of So Good Jewelry, was sweeping up broken glass from an apartment window across the street. But he said his store had no damage.
“We were very worried last night but everything is okay,” he said.
Ashley Parham said she “stressed out all night” about the safety of her antique store but found it undamaged Saturday. “I’m going to go home and have a nice cocktail,” she said.
After hugging the coastline for two days as it swept northward from southeastern Florida, Matthew finally touched land over the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge near McClellanville, S.C., the first hurricane to make landfall in the state since Hurricane Gaston in 2004.
In its latest bulletin, issued at 5 p.m. ET, the National Hurricane Center reported that the center of Matthew was located just off Myrtle Beach, S.C. The hurricane was moving to the northeast at 13 mph with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph, just 1 mph above tropical storm level.
"Although weakening is forecast during the next 48 hours, Matthew is expected to remain near hurricane strength while the center is near the coasts of South Carolina and North Carolina," the NHC said.
Torrential rains continue to spread inland across the Carolinas, the hurricane center said, where a serious inland flooding event is unfolding. The National Weather Service in Raleigh said that “life-threatening weather conditions” were occurring across eastern North Carolina.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Saturday that 437,000 people were without power in the state. She also pleaded with residents driven out of their homes not to rush back in immediately.
“The one thing I do want to say is that now is when the frustration comes,” Haley said at a briefing at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in West Columbia. "Most injuries, most fatalities occur after a storm because people attempt to move in too soon. Do not plan on going back home today or tomorrow. It is not going to be safe for you to go in between downed power lines and trees and just unsafe structures, bridges, all of those things.”
Haley said the storm toppled many trees and caused widespread flooding but there are few signs of structural damage. Three dams were breached, however, Haley said during a briefing at the state’s Emergency Operations Center. The dams are in Dillon and Lexington counties.
Two sections of Interstate 95 remained closed due to flooding Saturday night and roads to the state's barrier islands were inaccessible. The Ravenel Bridge in Charleston was set to reopen after an inspection found that it was safe to use.
Haley also warned of a "cyber situation" in which hackers send bogus emails offering to provide updates on power outages to get access to private computers.
Of the 10 deaths, at least four people died in Florida, including an elderly St. Lucie County couple killed by carbon monoxide fumes while running a generator in their garage. Two women died in separate events when trees fell on a home and a camper.
In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory reported three deaths, telling a news conference that “this is a very, very serious and deadly storm.”
In Georgia, Bulloch County deputy coroner Richard Pylant said two people died north of Savannah. Media reports said both were from falling trees, one onto a car and the other onto a mobile home. In addition, Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police said Saturday that they are investigating the death of a man at his home, possibly from structural damage caused by a fallen tree.
In Savannah, Ga., a historic town of moss-draped squares and antebellum mansions, a long stretch of President Street was submerged by several feet of water.
One Tybee Island resident after another was stopped at a roadblock at the Bull River bridge, a key lifeline on the highway that serves as the only access to the barrier island from Savannah.
A tree has fallen over the bridge, and they're being told that they can't cross until a state transportation official says it's safe and Hurricane Matthew's storm surge has passed.
In Charleston, as the storm churned closer, the water level at low tide was 6 feet above normal, according to the National Weather Service in Charleston, and Mayor John Tecklenburg warned that the biggest danger would come at high tide around 1 p.m. ET.
He told CNN that the city is expecting "severe flooding" in the coastal city as the storm surge crests.
The historic downtown area normally abuzz with weekend tourist traffic at bars and restaurants was eerily quiet as residents and visitors heeded a midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew. Many stores and shops were boarded up with plywood and protected by stacks of sandbags.
Most of downtown Charleston’s hospital district was surrounded by floodwaters, with the prominent Calhoun Street knee- to hip-deep in some spots, The Post and Courier reports. The newspaper also noted that echoes of exploding transformers could be heard as the wind picked up.
At one point, in the height of the storm, EMS service was suspended in Charleston County after authorities declared bridges unsafe for travel.
As the storm hammered the city, the Charleston County EMS suspended service, declaring a condition red as bridges became unsafe for travel.
“We do not want to deal with individuals who get themselves trapped out in this severe situation,” Chief Greg Mullen said.
At least 18 roads in the city of Mount Pleasant, S.C., were impassable, officials said. Charleston County authorities reported trees and power lines down throughout the county as 1,538 people waited out the storm in shelters.
As of 6 a.m. Saturday, more than 125,000 power outages were reported by utilities operating in the Low Country as a result of Hurricane Matthew. South Carolina Electric & Gas Company reported a total of 105,404 outages statewide, while South Carolina's Berkeley County Electric Cooperative reported 20,114.
Of the 500,000 people instructed to leave low-lying coastal areas, Haley said that more than 300,000 people had pulled out. Many of those who didn't, she said, were on Daniel Island, a 4,000-acre area on the east bank of the Cooper River in Charleston.
Strong winds from Matthew's eye wall also slammed into downtown Savannah early Saturday, downing trees and sending street signs flying. As the sun began to rise over the 283-year-old city, floodwaters inched steadily higher. Police reported numerous downed trees and washed-out roads.
Contributing: Tim Smith, of The Greenville News, is reporting from Charleston, S.C. Contributing: Eric Connor, reporting for The Greenville News from Savannah; Kirk Brown reporting for The Independent Mail.