A fast-weakening Hurricane Matthew which has been blamed for at least four deaths in the US, all in Florida, continued its march along the Atlantic coast.
It lashed two of the southern United States’s most historic cities and some of its most popular resort islands, flattening trees, swamping streets and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of homes.
The deaths in Florida included an elderly St Lucie County couple who died from carbon monoxide fumes while running a generator in their garage and two women who were killed when trees fell on a home and a camper.
The storm raked the city of St Augustine, Florida, on Friday. The city was founded by the Spanish in the 1500s and includes a 17th-century stone fortress and many historic homes turned into bed-and-breakfasts.
St Augustine was left awash in rain and grey seawater.
Police blocked all access to the city early on Saturday as power crews repaired lines and downed trees were cut up.
Matthew – the most powerful hurricane to threaten the Atlantic seaboard in more than a decade – set off alarms as it closed in on the US, triggering evacuation orders covering at least two million people.
The storm also left at least 470 dead in Haiti in one hard-hit district alone, with other stricken areas still unreachable four days after the disaster struck.
Matthew raked Georgia and South Carolina with torrential rain and stiff winds, and – for the first time in its run-up the US coastline – its storm centre blew ashore.
It made landfall near the town of McClellanville, South Carolina, where it caused serious flooding.
Up until then, the centre, or eye, stayed just far enough out at sea for coastal communities not to feel the full force of Matthew’s winds.
The reaction was relief that things were nowhere near as bad as many feared as the storm passed one city after another.
“We are all blessed that Matthew stayed off our coast,” Florida governor Rick Scott said.
“We are blessed that we didn’t have a direct hit.”
Matthew was just barely a hurricane at 11am local time, with winds of 75mph, a drop-off from 145mph when the storm roared into Haiti.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina were among the cities bracing themselves for later in the day.
From there, the storm was expected to veer out to sea and loop back around toward the Bahamas in a much-weakened state.
North Carolina governor Pat McCrory warned people not to let their guard down just because Matthew was losing steam.
Georgia, a historic town of moss-draped squares and antebellum mansions in Savannah, saw floodwaters several feet deep submerge a long stretch of President Street, which links to the highway to Georgia’s Tybee Island.
A shivering woman was seen staggering through waters up to her neck to the water’s edge. A bystander handed her a sheet which she wrapped around her neck.
“I’m homeless,” said the woman, who identified herself only as Valerie.
“I’ve got nine kids, but I couldn’t evacuate with them.”
Matthew also brought some of the highest tides on record along the South Carolina coast. Streets in Charleston – a city of handsome pre-Civil War homes, church steeples and romantic carriage rides – were flooded.
Leigh Webber watched the torrential rains from the porch of her home in the city’s historic district.
“It’s not as bad as maybe I was expecting,” she said.
“I feel badly for a lot of the businesses downtown that have been closed since Wednesday.”
“I noticed a lot of hotels were completely closed. I know some weddings were cancelled and it was a huge financial loss for a lot of people.”
South Carolina’s golf-and-tennis resort, Hilton Head Island, also took a blow as the eye of the storm passed 20 miles to the east with at least one gust of 87mph recorded there.
Fallen pine trees blocked the two roads on to the island of 40,000 people, and many roads were under water. Signs were blown over and power was out across the island.
Chandler Brunson was among those trying to go back to her home after evacuating but found her path blocked.
“I think we’re going to have a pine tree splitting our house,” she said. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Residents of Brunswick, Georgia, awoke to roads covered by water or fallen trees and downed power lines.
All access points to nearby St Simons Island from the mainland were blocked. Tybee Island also took a beating with gusts clocked at 93mph.
Nearly a half-million electric customers in South Carolina were left without power, and 250,000 were in the dark in coastal Georgia.
The hurricane skirted Florida’s heavily populated Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area and sideswiped cities farther north, including Daytona Beach, Vero Beach, Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville, without its centre coming ashore in Florida.
The damage consisted largely of fallen trees, downed power lines, eroded beaches and flooded roads. In north-eastern Florida, the storm gouged out several large sections of the coastal A1A highway north of Daytona Beach.
Well south of the storm, life quickly began returning to normal on Saturday, with all three of Orlando’s main theme parks – Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld – reopening in the morning.