Hurricane Matthew finally spun away from Florida Saturday after menacing the state for two days, leaving behind eroded beaches, downed trees and power lines, and flooded coastal communities.
But after taking an aerial tour of the state’s northeast corridor in the morning, Gov. Rick Scott summed up a sense of relief that many felt after the powerful storm skirted the coast and instead made landfall that morning in South Carolina.
“We are blessed, it stayed off our coast,” Scott told reporters. “If it had a direct impact hit, everything would be worse for our families.”
Given that Matthew didn’t actually strike Florida, it still proved plenty deadly, claiming as many as six lives in Florida and adding to a body count that included at least 336 in Haiti. It also left behind lots of cleanup, albeit nothing too catastrophic.
In St. Augustine’s historic downtown, storm surge breached a sea wall and flooded the popular tourist town, temporarily stranding some residents in their homes and guests in bed-and-breakfasts. In the Jacksonville area, situated along the swollen St. Johns River, Matthew left debris, flooded streets, felled trees, blocked bridges and a badly damaged pier.
Portions of A1A in Daytona Beach were missing, and the storm just about wiped out the northbound lane of the beach-side roadway for about a mile in Flagler Beach, where it also ripped off some roofs. Meanwhile, 763,000 remained without power as of midday Saturday, including nearly half of Duval and almost all of Flagler counties.
Scott, during a media briefing at Cecil Field Airport with Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, said the hardest hit parts of the state seemed to be in Volusia, and noted that as you go north “the beach erosion is unbelievable. It’s pretty devastating.” Curry vowed to return the vast Jacksonville metro area of 850,000 people to normalcy.
“It’s a new day and the sun is shining behind us. There’s a lot of people in pain right now. They’re hungry, they’re tired,” he said just before lifting evacuations for about a half-million people. “We’re going to ride all our workers to get this community back as soon as possible.”
In St. Augustine, residents awoke to find toppled trees and soggy streets. The Old Town bayfront was littered with debris, including broken boards with nails sticking out, and shattered tiles. Some buildings suffered water damage, although the flooding that turned several streets into rivers, gulped down cars and seeped into homes and businesses was mostly gone, leaving behind muck and wet floors.
But beyond the lingering smell of dampness, like dirty laundry, most were pleasantly surprised that it was not worse given the lashing Matthew unleashed as it swirled off the coast Friday evening.
“Every single historical building is intact; no damage at all,” said Cindy Stavely, executive director of St. Augustine’s Colonial Quarter and Pirate Museum. “It’s just a matter of cleaning and chain saws.”
Nina Carberry and her mother, Nina Beverly, waited out the storm on the enclosed porch of the family home off Joiner Street, a few blocks inland from the bayfront. Carberry’s grandfather, G.S. Beverly, a plumber and businessman, built the two-story home more than 100 years ago, Carberry said.
About 1 p.m. Friday, Carberry and her mom heard the neighborhood transformers blow — caused by a giant oak tree that tumbled down on power lines behind the home in the high winds — and then they watched a river of rapidly rising ocean water creep up the road because of storm surge.
“We had at least one more foot before it would have gotten in the house,” Carberry said Saturday morning, as debris of branches, moss and leaves remained on the street. She said the surge reached as high as the bottom of the top step leading to the home’s front porch but thankfully caused no damage to the structure.
Storm surge brought several feet of ocean water inland in St. Augustine, threatening homes and businesses, like the historic Casablanca Inn On The Bay — where a couple dozen people were reportedly stranded as floodwaters reached the Inn’s doorstep Friday afternoon.
Adriana Soto, with her dog, Chiquita, and Ish Kolozsvari were among the many residents walking along the bayfront in Old Town on Saturday morning to assess the impacts of Hurricane Matthew. Soto and Kolozsvari opted to stay in their third-floor residence off St. George Street, rather than heed the mandatory evacuation order that sent thousands of residents fleeing inland.
“Being above ground, we thought we’d be fine,” Soto said. Beneath their home, St. George Street “looked like a river,” she said, “but then it receded fairly quickly.”
Government leaders acknowledged Saturday that they have plenty of work to do to get things back to normal, as Matthew continued its assault to the north in Georgia and South Carolina. By early afternoon, the National Hurricane Center said the storm had weakened to a Category 1, with 75 mph winds after making landfall southeast of McClellanville, South Carolina, and moving almost on top of Myrtle Beach, where it ripped apart the Springmaid Pier. But it was pushing a potential 9-foot storm surge that threatened to leave major damage in much of the low-country, including Charleston, where sea water overlapped the walls of the historic Battery promenade Saturday morning before receding.
The ragged storm was moving northeast at 13 miles per hour. Forecasters expect the system to begin heading east Sunday but they discontinued earlier projections that the storm would loop around and head back toward the Bahamas as a tropical depression late in the week. They now expect Matthew will continue to weaken and cease being a tropical system sometime Monday.
In Florida, Matthew was greatly feared as it ripped through Haiti — where some reports put the number of dead as high as 800 — and the Bahamas earlier this week before sparing South Florida but battering the rest of the state’s Atlantic coastline. In Florida, Scott’s office had verified two deaths attributable to the hurricane as of Saturday afternoon, although some media reported as many as six.
At his morning press conference in Jacksonville, Scott — who earlier in the week warned residents in evacuating coastal areas that “this storm will kill you” — said he remained concerned about Matthew looping back toward the state. But he said the primary focus is cleaning up and restoring power to hundreds of thousands of residents and allowing evacuated communities to return home.
With the storm far enough away from Florida, the Department of Transportation began to examine bridges to ensure they were safe for travel. Scott said highway tolls would remain suspended at least through Sunday night. Utilities set about restoring power.
President Barack Obama called Scott Saturday morning and committed to providing federal support, according to Obama’s deputy press secretary. But Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said the president didn’t say when the governor’s latest request for federal funding would be approved.
Staff writers Alex Harris, Glenn Garvin, Jenny Staletovich, Jay Weaver, Jeremy Wallace and Julie K. Brown, along with The Associated Press, contributed to this report.