MIAMI (AFP) - Thousands of US coastal residents who defied calls to evacuate were urged to hunker down in place on Friday (Oct 7) as deadly Hurricane Matthew powered up the south-east coast threatening widespread damage and lethal flooding.
After leaving at least 800 people dead when it hammered Haiti as a ruinous Category Four hurricane, a weaker but still potent Matthew claimed its first US casualty on Friday when the storm blocked first responders in central Florida from reaching a 58-year-old woman with a medical emergency.
Rescuers also received a call about an 82-year-old man who was experiencing stroke-like symptoms and was having difficulty breathing, but could not reach him due to high winds.
Wending its way Friday up the coast, Matthew still packed 195kmh winds, with torrential rains and storm surges of up to 3m capable of devastating damage.
“I just want to emphasise to everybody that this is still a really dangerous hurricane,” President Barack Obama said in remarks from the Oval Office. “The potential for storm surge, flooding, loss of life and severe property damage continues to exist.”
Millions of Americans were urged to flee their homes, but many disregarded warnings and elected to shelter in place. Obama urged coastal residents, where it is still possible, to heed the pleas to move to higher ground.
“Storm surge can move very quickly and people can think that they’re out of the woods and then suddenly get hit and not be in a position in which they and their families are safe,” he said.
Obama spoke by phone to the governors of affected states and declared a state of emergency in North Carolina, in addition to Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, directing federal aid to supplement local and state response efforts.
Evacuation orders were issued for areas covering some three million residents, with major cities like Jacksonville, Florida and Savannah, Georgia in the storm path.
An AFP correspondent in St Augustine, Florida, said roads in the area were deserted, many blocked by downed trees or flooded with ocean water. Stores were closed, the whole city eerily empty under dark and menacing skies.
Mayor Nancy Shaver said that as many as half of those in vulnerable zones had refused to evacuate. Officials now were urging them to stay in place as St Augustine braced for storm surges as high as 2.5m – “just a tremendous amount of water to come into our city.”
“Everyone should stay put,” Shaver said. “This is not – this is not a Boy Scout camping adventure.”
Matthew was expected to dump as much as 36cm of rain along the Georgia coast, and Governor Nathan Deal ordered the mandatory evacuation of six coastal counties.
The presidential candidates – Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton – received briefings on the storm from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Both tweeted messages of solidarity to those in Matthew’s path.
Some 2,000 people have been evacuated by bus from the historic city of Savannah, in coastal Georgia.
Officials there declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew for Chatham County, of which Savannah is the seat. Police threatened to arrest anyone caught outside.
A last group of eight buses was poised to leave Savannah at midday Friday under heavy rains. Passengers included some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, among them young children and elderly citizens. A woman in a wheelchair was accompanied by her husband and young children who carried bedding on their heads.
The hurricane’s path has shifted closer to the coast, the South Carolina Emergency Management Division tweeted on Friday, adding: “Coastal residents should evacuate NOW.”
It added that the situation was “DIRE for barrier islands.”
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said the storm was “getting worse,” with higher than expected sea surges. She said more than half of those in at-risk areas had been evacuated.
Matthew was scouring its way up a 1,200km strip from Boca Raton in Florida towards Surf City, North Carolina, driving seawater and heavy rain inland.
Deserted streets across Florida were battered by wind and horizontal rain, with reports of downed utility lines – 600,000 people lost power – and uprooted trees blocking roadways.
Matthew brushed the Florida coast overnight, lashing Cape Canaveral and damaging some roofs at the Kennedy Space Centre but sparing Miami and parts of the south-central coast its worst effects.
Governor Rick Scott warned however that “the worst effects are still likely to come,” urging residents in northern Florida, particularly in low-lying areas around Jacksonville, to leave immediately.
“If you have a chance to evacuate you need to get out now,” he said. “Save your life.” He said 22,000 people had overnighted in the state’s shelters.
The NHC forecast the storm’s eye to move near or over the coast of north-east Florida and Georgia Friday night, and near or over the South Carolina coast on Saturday.
Matthew has already battered Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic – where it killed four – and the Bahamas.