FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — A weakened Hurricane Matthew caused severe flooding throughout the U.S. seaboard Sunday, as North Carolina rushed to rescue hundreds of stranded people and the U.S. death toll from the powerful storm reached 15.
The slow-moving tempest dumped as much as four inches of rain per hour in some areas. A record 14-plus inches drenched Fayetteville, where the soil was already saturated from heavy September rainfall. Water rescue teams worked through the night Saturday to save thousands stranded in stalled cars and flooded homes.
By 6 a.m. Sunday, teams had rescued more than 562 people in 218 calls, said Michael Martin, a battalion chief with the Fayetteville Fire Department. “We’re still rescuing people,” Martin said. In the early hours of the storm, most of them were motorists, he said, but as floodwaters rose, teams started evacuating residents trapped in their homes.
Flooding and power outages were also reported in the Virginia Beach area. Numerous roads in the Tidewater area were closed or impassable.
“The rain stopped, but the wind is bad and the water is continuing to rise,” said Danielle Belanger, 29, from her Virginia Beach townhome, just a block from Chesapeake Bay. High tide does not arrive until 2 p.m., she said, so the flooding will get worse.
Hurricane Matthew “came right over top of us, stuck there for a good amount of time,” she said. Now there “are a lot of trees down, a lot of flooding. It was not anticipated what do ever.”
Matthew knocked out power to more than 1.3 million people and has been blamed for at least 15 deaths, including at least seven in North Carolina, four in Florida and three in Georgia. In South Carolina, one person died attempting to drive through floodwaters on Saturday, according to Gov. Nikki Haley (R). Meanwhile, in Haiti, slammed by Matthew earlier in the week, the toll continues to rise. A government official put the death count at 470 in one Haitian district, the Associated Press reported.
The hurricane had remained just offshore as it passed Florida’s beaches and Georgia’s sea islands on Friday and early Saturday, but its northern eyewall scraped land at Hilton Head Island and Pritchards Island, S.C., with 105 mph winds.
Shortly before daybreak Sunday, the hurricane was downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, according to the Associated Press. As of 8 a.m. Sunday, the storm was centered about 60 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, moving out to sea. It still had hurricane-force winds of 75 mph.
Hurricanes have many tools of destruction, from wind to storm surge to rainfall, and these latter two elements may be Matthew’s most dangerous features at this point. Rainfall totals in Savannah, Ga., topped 17 inches.
Officials in North Carolina had feared a repeat of Hurricane Floyd, the 1999 storm that had a similar track to Matthew’s – teasing Florida’s east coast before heading to the Carolinas – and that dropped catastrophic quantities of rain. Floyd delivered a modest punch to the coast, but the inland flooding became North Carolina’s worst natural disaster on record.
By Sunday, strong winds toppled trees in saturated soils through much of the central region of the state, knocking out power to about 760,000 homes. In Raleigh, the dam at Lake Benson was breached Saturday night. Forty-three counties have issued local states of emergency and 4,200 people are staying 83 shelters.
“I want the rest of the nation to know: We need your help,” North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said at a news conference.
As with Floyd, Matthew follows a prolonged period of rain in eastern and central North Carolina. Floodwaters in areas around Fayetteville, Windsor and Greenville had started to recede.
“I don’t think people realize how bad this is,” said Martin of the Fayetteville Fire Department. “This could be worst than Floyd.”
Matthew caused plenty of chaos before it reached the Carolinas. In Daytona Beach, Florida, bridges reopened Saturday morning, and residents returned to their homes to find cracked walls and broken windows. The Daytona Beach pier remained intact, but debris and sand littered the boardwalk, and the steel railing that wraps around it was bent and twisted.
“It’s crazy to see how strong Mother Nature is,” resident John Hogeland said as he surveyed the damage.
In St. Augustine, Florida, which was founded in 1565 and is the country’s oldest city, officials were trying to restore power, sewer and water service. One fire and rescue official there estimated that St. Johns County alone suffered more than $2 billion in damage.
National Guard troopers in camouflage stopped motorists from driving across the Bridge of Lions to the barrier island, though people on foot or bicycles could go through. Residents who had evacuated the city proper could not return home.
“The National Guard is securing the city,” Mayor Nancy Shaver said. “It’s about safety.”
Two states to the north, South Carolina state and city officials are urging residents to stay away a bit longer as authorities assess the damage to bridges and roadways.
The law enforcement-imposed curfew lifted at 8 a.m. but there is lots of flooding in downtown Charleston and access is restricted to any of the islands.
Most downtown streets in the city, founded in 1670 and known for its antebellum architecture, became rivers after the initial deluge. Homes throughout Charleston’s historic district had been protected with plywood and lined with sandbags. After floodwaters retreated, leaving mud in the streets as residents wandered neighborhoods to check out the mess.
Streetside crape myrtles leaned precariously over the roadways. The storm had torn awnings from storefronts. The South Carolina Department of Transportation closed Charleston’s Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge so inspectors could look for problems.
Mark Wilbert, director of emergency management in Charleston, said that the city – a finger of land between the Ashley and Cooper rivers – had not suffered any major building damage and that those tidal rivers would pull the floodwaters back toward the ocean with every low tide.
“We’re pretty confident that, absent any more rain, we’ll see the water levels go down significantly,” Wilbert said.
Those who escaped the dangers of Hurricane Matthew on the coast faced threats online, according to the governor. South Carolina residents received emails promising updates on power outages. But those who clicked on the link provided in the emails inadvertently opened their computers to hackers, she said.
Ross reported from Carolina Beach, N.C. Joel Achenbach reported from Washington. Chico Harlan, William Branigin, Angela Fritz and Jason Samenow in Washington; Arelis R. Hernández in Ormond Beach, Fla.; Renae Merle and Susan Cooper Eastman in St. Augustine, Fla.; Lacey McLaughlin in Daytona Beach, Fla.