As its eyewall skirted north Florida’s coast on Friday, Hurricane Matthew pummeled beachfront cities with pounding waves and surging tides.
In St. Augustine’s historic downtown, several streets were flooded as rising water swallowed vehicles and climbed the steps to hotel entrances. Sections of State Road A1A along Flagler Beach washed away.
The 4.73-foot storm surge measured in the St. Johns River at Mayport was the highest recorded in more than a century.
Buildings in Daytona Beach, meanwhile, sustained roof and other structural damage from high winds.
But a 5 p.m. advisory by National Hurricane Center forecasters said the storm was weakening slightly, with its center about 70 miles east of Jacksonville. Sustained winds topped at 110 mph.
Matthew has yet to generate sustained winds of hurricane force anywhere in Florida, though a gust of 107 mph was recorded on Cape Canaveral Friday morning. The western eyewall of the storm has remained barely offshore through the day.
The storm should continue heading north, northwest today, with a turn to the north later tonight or Saturday. The storm will remain a hurricane over the next two days as it curves along the coast before circling back south, forecasters said.
In Florida and across the southeast U.S. coast, authorities began to worry that days of watching the storm may be fueling hurricane fatigue.
On Tuesday, Matthew hammered Haiti, killing nearly 300 — a number expected to rise in the coming days as authorities reach areas cut off when Matthew washed out roads and collapsed bridges. After crossing the Bahamas Wednesday and Thursday, the storm began churning up waves and winds in South Florida Thursday afternoon, leaving the region largely unscathed.
In his first briefing of the day Friday, Gov. Rick Scott warned the state not to drop its guard just yet. About 1.5 million Floridians remain in evacuation zones.
“This is still a 120 mph storm. While the eye has not made direct landfall, it still has time to make a direct hit,'” Scott said.
President Barack Obama echoed the governor, recalling the track Hurricane Sandy took in 2012. The massive storm initially spared much of the southeast coast but pounded the northeast after coming ashore near Atlantic City, New Jersey.
“Initially people thought this doesn’t look as bad as we thought and suddenly you get massive storm surge and lot of people were severely affected,” he said. “This is still a really dangerous hurricane. The potential for flooding, loss of life and severe property damage continues to exist.”
As winds picked up early Friday, a tornado warning was issued for parts of Northeast Florida. Nearly 827,000 Floridians were without power. About 22,360 people remained in 145 shelters in 33 counties, emergency management officials said. And a storm surge forecast to rise as much as 10 feet continued to threaten low-lying areas in Duval and Nassau counties, as high tide arrived.
Schools and government offices were closed in 45 counties and 30 colleges and universities from Miami-Dade College to Pasco-Hernando and eight hospitals were evacuated in the storm zone.
The state’s first storm-related death was reported in St. Lucie County, after rescue workers were unable to respond to an emergency call from a woman suffering a heart attack as winds gusted at 68 mph.
By about 10 a.m., strong gusts whipped Interstate 10 and made driving treacherous on the I-295 Beltway, with waves rocking just a few feet below the Henry H. Buckman Bridge. All flights to Orlando Friday were canceled. Disney World remained closed.
The state also told the University of Miami and Florida State that highway patrol troopers who normally escort teams won’t be available for this weekend’s match-up in Miami.
“All state law enforcement will be doing hurricane response and recovery,'” said Jackie Schutz, Scott's communications director.
South Florida largely dodged major impacts after the storm shifted east as it neared Andros Island in the Bahamas Thursday. About 172,000 lost power, but nearly 70 percent was restored by 11 a.m. Friday, the utility said.
Water levels in Lake Okeechobee continued to rise because of the storm, said Col. Jason Kirk, Jacksonville District Commander, but initial assessments of the impact from the storm “indicate that the dike has weathered the storm well.”
Water managers estimate that the lake levels will rise to a stage of 16.5 feet and, as a result, the corps has resumed discharges from the lake after suspending them during the storm, the corps said in a press release.
In Jacksonville, residents Friday hunkered down.
Jim Davis fled his Jacksonville Beach home Friday with his wife and 5-month old baby to an inland hotel, 11 years after he lost his house in Slidell, La., to Hurricane Katrina.
"The water came in the house 16 feet high, and I was nine feet out of the canal, so the total water rise in Louisiana was insane. ... We had nothing left,” he said. “Now we're over in this house that we just renovated, and it's like, 'Ay, you've got to be kidding me.' "
At Florida Hospital Flagler, about 20 miles north of Daytona Beach and the only hospital in Flagler County, a skeleton crew of physicians, nurses and staff locked the doors to ride out the storm. Early Friday, when sustained winds reached 45 mph, county officials grounded ambulances and other emergency responders.
Hospital staff had evacuated 110 patients to other medical centers beginning on Tuesday. Only one patient, who required emergency medical care, remained at the hospital.
"We're somewhat in lock down," said John Subers, a public information officer inside the hospital. "We're certainly not allowed outside the building and nobody is allowed in."
Subers said he expects normal operations to resume late Friday after Matthew passes.
In Vero Beach, winds battered the barrier island but damage was more inconvenient than catastrophic.
Darrell Etheridge, who stayed in an apartment two blocks from the beach, said Matthew blew off his garage and tore down the banister to his upstairs neighbor’s apartment, but did little other damage.
Winds “sounded like a pack of wolves,” he said, but added, “I got off damn good.”
Tony Price, 59, and his 5-year-old son Jadin rode out the storm in their home on North Banana Drive on Merritt Island. The power went off early in the night amid the shrieking winds. They watched a small battery powered TV and ate Spam and peanut-butter sandwiches. “Old favorites,” Price said, grinning, as he and his son collected shreds of wood from their fence that crumpled.
The fence and a tin shed were the only casualties. He figured it would cost him about $5,000 to repair all the damages. “We were expecting a lot more, especially because on the news, they kept saying it would be a category 4 or 5,” Price said, motioning to his son. “This one slept right through it.”
With the storm now battering the north end of the state, Leo Lachat, head of the state's Bureau of Response, told emergency managers the state has two missions: protect Northeast Florida as the storm continues above Brevard County and start deploying recovery teams to assess damage below the Space Coast.
Staff writer David Ovalle, Daniel Chang, Alex Harris, Glenn Garvin, Charles Rabin, Jay Weaver and Julie K. Brown, along with the Associated Press contributed to this report.