CHARLESTON, S.C. — Hurricane Matthew weakened to a Category 1 storm on Saturday, but packed a strong enough punch to down trees and deliver a 6-foot storm surge and severe flooding to historic downtown Charleston.
The deadly hurricane, which roared out of the Caribbean, killing hundreds in Haiti, officially made landfall Saturday morning 40 miles northeast of the South Carolina port city.
After hugging the coastline for two days as it swept northward from southeastern Florida, Matthew finally touched land over the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge near McClellanville, S.C., the first hurricane to make landfall in the state since Hurricane Gaston in 2004.
As of 11 a.m., the center of Matthew is 55 miles south-southeast of Myrtle Beach, S.C., and the hurricane is moving to the northeast at 12 mph.
Hurricane warnings remain for the entire coastline of South Carolina and portions of the Georgia and North Carolina coasts.
Matthew is barely maintaining hurricane strength, as the storm's winds have decreased to 75 mph, just 1 mph above tropical storm level.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Saturday that 437,000 people were without power in the state. She also pleaded with residents driven out of their homes not to rush back in immediately.
“The one thing I do want to say is that now is when the frustration comes,” Haley said at a briefing at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in West Columbia. "Most injuries, most fatalities occur after a storm because people attempt to move in too soon. Do not plan on going back home today or tomorrow. It is not going to be safe for you to go in between downed power lines and trees and just unsafe structures, bridges, all of those things.”
Haley also warned of a "cyber situation" in which hackers send bogus emails offering to provide updates on power outages to get access to private computers.
At least four people died in Florida and more than 1.1 million people were without power. An elderly St. Lucie County couple died from carbon monoxide fumes while running a generator in their garage, and two women were killed in separate events when trees fell on a home and a camper.
In Savannah, Ga., a historic town of moss-draped squares and antebellum mansions, a long stretch of President Street was submerged by several feet of water.
One Tybee Island resident after another was stopped at a roadblock at the Bull River bridge, a key lifeline on the highway that serves as the only access to the barrier island from Savannah.
A tree has fallen over the bridge, and they're being told that they can't cross until a state transportation official says it's safe and Hurricane Matthew's storm surge has passed.
In Charleston, as the storm churned closer, the water level at low tide was 6 feet above normal, according to the National Weather Service in Charleston, and Mayor John Tecklenburg warned that the biggest danger would come at high tide around 1 p.m. ET.
He told CNN that the city is expecting "severe flooding" in the coastal city as the storm surge crests.
More hurricane coverage:
• Matthew lashes Georgia, Carolina coasts
• Matthew's path: How 20 miles made all the difference
• A look at how storm surges happen
• Surfers celebrate in Florida
• How birds fared in the eye of the storm
• A link to full coverage of Hurricane Matthew
The historic downtown area normally abuzz with weekend tourist traffic at bars and restaurants was eerily quiet as residents and visitors heeded a midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew. Many stores and shops were boarded up with plywood and protected by stacks of sandbags.
Most of downtown Charleston’s hospital district was surrounded by floodwaters, with the prominent Calhoun Street knee- to hip-deep in some spots, The Post and Courier reports. The newspaper also noted that echoes of exploding transformers could be heard as the wind picked up.
At one point, in the height of the storm, EMS service was suspended in Charleston County after authorities declared bridges unsafe for travel.
As the storm hammered the city, the Charleston County EMS suspended service, declaring a condition red as bridges became unsafe for travel.
“We do not want to deal with individuals who get themselves trapped out in this severe situation,” Chief Greg Mullen said.
At least 18 roads in the city of Mount Pleasant, S.C., were impassable, officials said. Charleston County authorities reported trees and power lines down throughout the county as 1,538 people waited out the storm in shelters.
As of 6 a.m. Saturday, more than 125,000 power outages were reported by utilities operating in the Low Country as a result of Hurricane Matthew. South Carolina Electric & Gas Company reported a total of 105,404 outages statewide, while South Carolina's Berkeley County Electric Cooperative reported 20,114.
Of the 500,000 people instructed to leave low-lying coastal areas, Haley said that more than 300,000 people had pulled out. Many of those who didn't, she said, were on Daniel Island, a 4,000-acre area on the east bank of the Cooper River in Charleston.
Strong winds from Matthew's eyewall also slammed into downtown Savannah early Saturday, downing trees and sending street signs flying. As the sun began to rise over the 283-year-old city, floodwaters inched steadily higher. Police reported numerous downed trees and washed-out roads.