Hurricane Matthew grazed the S.C. coast Saturday, flooding streets, felling trees and power lines and leaving hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians without power.
But the storm’s death toll, if any, in South Carolina remained unknown late Saturday because authorities still did not have access to inundated areas on the coast.
The state had received no reports of storm-related deaths as of 6 p.m. Saturday, though Matthew already had claimed at least 13 lives in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina and hundreds more in Haiti.
S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley said it could take until Sunday evening for state officials to have an accurate assessment of Matthew’s damage. But, the Republican governor said, the state could lift evacuation orders for many parts of the storm-riddled state on Sunday.
“We’re very happy right now that we can say that, so far, we’re hoping everybody is still safe,” Haley said.
The storm knocked down 124 trees in Columbia, wrecked piers in Myrtle Beach, left half of downtown Charleston with standing water and cut off some areas of the state entirely.
Matthew weakened from its Category 4 status as it churned northeast from Florida and Georgia early Saturday.
It swept past Beaufort County just after high tide and before dawn Saturday, then continued to skirt the S.C. coast, eventually making landfall at 11 a.m. as a Category 1 hurricane just southeast of McClellanville, a fishing village between Charleston and Myrtle Beach.
With it came strong winds – as fast as 88 mph at Hilton Head and 74 mph in Myrtle Beach – and more than a foot of rain in some parts of the state.
Matthew dumped 10 to 15 inches of rain along the S.C. coast and 5 to 9 inches in parts of the greater Midlands, according to John Quagliariello, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
That combination uprooted trees and downed power lines across the eastern half of the Palmetto State.
More than 866,175 S.C. utilities customers were without power at 8:21 p.m. Saturday, a number that grew both steadily and rapidly throughout the day.
By comparison, the Category 4 Hurricane Hugo in 1989 left 500,000 homes and businesses without power. And 350,000 customers lost power during the 2014 ice storm.
The majority of Saturday’s outages were in Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester and Horry counties, areas Haley this week begged residents to evacuate.
“All of the utilities and the co-ops are doing everything they can to get into the areas, when they’re told it’s safe, to try and get everybody back restored,” Haley said during a 6 p.m. briefing.
More than 300 S.C. roads and 10 bridges were closed by fallen trees or downed power lines as of 4 p.m. Saturday, according to the S.C. Department of Transportation. Thirty-four Columbia roads remained closed at sundown Saturday.
Two sections of Interstate 95 – a 15-mile stretch in Dillon County and the southbound lanes near Ridgeland – were shut off by flooding.
Road damage is particularly heavy in Jasper, Beaufort, Colleton and Allendale counties, Haley said.
About 100 Charleston city roadways were closed by flooding on Saturday morning.
The state’s barrier islands were inaccessible, Transportation Chief Christy Hall said.
“What we have seen is lots of trees down, lots of power lines down, a lot of roads that are not passable,” Haley said. “We’re not seeing a lot of structural damage.”
Local leaders, law enforcement and road workers will decide when it is safe for coastal residents to return home. Road workers and National Guardsmen are working to clear roads of trees and other debris, Hall said.
The state has 6,500 residents in 77 shelters, and hundreds of thousands more left their homes ahead of the storm at Haley’s request.
State Law Enforcement Division chief Mark Keel said 761 state law enforcement officers and 278 National Guardsmen are patrolling evacuated and powerless areas and helping the DOT clear roads.
Local governments in Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester, Jasper and Williamsburg counties set curfews to keep residents off roads at night.
County and school leaders will decide when schools should re-open, Haley said.
The storm was not without victims.
It obliterated the popular Springmaid pier in Myrtle Beach, formerly the Grand Strand’s longest at 1,060 feet.
It damaged signage at the University of South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium and knocked out traffic lights for most of the day at several busy intersections in downtown Columbia.
In Charleston, the storm led S.C. transportation officials to briefly close the prominent Arthur Ravenel Jr. cable-stay bridge, opened in 2005, for an engineering inspection. Officials re-opened the bridge Saturday night.
“The design of the Ravenel Bridge allows for some movement of the bridge elements, but Hurricane Matthew is the bridge’s first exposure to significant storm force winds,” the agency said in a statement.
Some coastal residents braved the storm despite repeated warnings. Jim Varcadipane stayed behind to protect his Garden City liquor store.
“If a window breaks in my store, this is one of the first places people will hit,” he said. “I have two pistols and two shotguns. This place is all I have.”
Those who stayed were astonished at the strong gusts whipped in by Matthew.
Winds in Myrtle Beach blew signs down and sent roof shingles flying. Ocean Boulevard was littered with debris and limbs on the south side of the resort city.
Scores of trees also blocked roads, including parts of U.S. 17 south of Myrtle Beach. Three power lines sagged over the Surfside Beach town hall as poles leaned precariously from high winds.
Near Litchfield Beach, a fallen tree blocked all southbound traffic at about 6:30 pm. Another tree blocked part of the highway near Myrtle Beach State Park.
“What caught most people by surprise was how strong the winds were on the backside of the storm after the eye passed over,” said Chief Norman Knight of the Garden City-Murrells Inlet Fire District, noting numerous rescue calls were wind-related.
Brandi Kiser, 22, was astonished for a different reason.
Stopped on I-26 just east of Orangeburg by a toppled pine tree, she watched a burgundy SUV pull up and try to navigate around the tree – which extended into the median so much that getting around it was impossible.
The SUV’s driver got out. “She’s in labor,” he said out loud. He called for an ambulance, said Kiser, a licensed funeral director and embalmer from St. George in Dorchester County.
“I heard the dad say, ‘The contractions are one minute apart.’”
Kiser could see paramedics helping the woman and then one provide her a small blanket, the woman cradling something.
“I’m 95 percent sure she gave birth,” Kiser said of her vantage point inside her car.
The ambulance rushed off to Orangeburg’s Regional Medical Center. Kiser, who knows the area well, guided the new father and his SUV on the 10-minute trip to the hospital using alternate routes.
“It was probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Kiser said Saturday afternoon. “I didn’t really do anything.”
Haley urged residents late Saturday to avoid flood water and cautioned against driving on flooded roads, where water could hide debris or power lines. “You don’t know what you’re going over.”
She also urged residents relying on generators for power not to run them in garages, which risks carbon monoxide poisoning.