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Hurricane Matthew continues its destructive path along the U.S. southern Atlantic coast, bringing with it high winds and rain that have caused widespread flooding in many cities in Florida and Georgia.
The mayor of St. Augustine, Florida, Nancy Shaver, told the Associated Press in a telephone interview that the Category 3 storm had battered much of the 451-year-old city with waves and a storm surge that could top 8 feet.
The flooding, she said, “is just going to get higher and higher and higher."
No injuries or deaths have been reported as of Friday afternoon, but it will be several hours before authorities can get out and begin damage assessments, Shaver added.
She said damage is likely to be "widespread," and "there are houses that will probably not ever be the same again or not even be there."
In Charleston, South Carolina, a curfew starting at midnight Friday and extending until 6 a.m. Saturday has been imposed.
Police Chief Greg Mullen told a news conference Friday that officials expect unusually high tides driven by the storm along with the torrential rains that Matthew is expected to bring. He said no cars or pedestrians will be allowed on the streets during the overnight period.
Meanwhile, the magnitude of the devastation inflicted by Matthew as it roared through the Caribbean became ever clearer, with officials in Haiti raising the death toll there to nearly 300, while also cautioning that there were scores of bodies that had yet to be recorded.
Hurricane response task force commander Rear Adm. Cedric Pringle told reporters that nine U.S. military helicopters have already arrived or will arrive in the country later Friday, and three others could be available from a transport ship. He said that there are currently about 250 U.S. troops in Haiti and another 100 could go over in the next day or so.
In Tybee Island in Georgia, about 100 people have decided to ride out the storm. The town’s mayor said he is calling them personally, pleading them to evacuate ahead of the storm’s arrival.
But the beer kept flowing at Calvin Ratterree's bar, where about a dozen holdouts gathered for lunch.
"I'm worried, but we've got friends across the street with a third-floor condo," said Ratteree, who owns Nickie's 1971 bar about a block from Georgia's largest public beach. "I'm committed. I'd rather be here with the people that support me and need me."
The 3,000 people who live on Tybee Island, 18 miles east of Savannah, were ordered to evacuate Wednesday. Most left, some of them hitting the road at the last-minute Friday as Matthew churned toward Georgia from the coast of Florida.
But some insisted on riding out the storm, much to the frustration of Mayor Jason Buelterman. He personally called some of the holdouts, hoping to persuade them to move inland.
"This is what happens when you don't have a hurricane for 100 years," Buelterman said. "People get complacent. They just don't know. Thankfully, it's a very small minority."
Hurricane Matthew sideswiped Florida's Atlantic coast early Friday, toppling trees onto homes and knocking out power to more than 800,000 people but sparing the most heavily populated stretch of shoreline the catastrophic blow many had feared.
Authorities warned that the danger was far from over, with hundreds of miles of coastline in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina still under threat of torrential rain and deadly storm surge as the most powerful hurricane to menace the Atlantic Seaboard in over a decade pushed north.
They warned, too, that the storm could easily take a turn inland.
"It still has time to do a direct hit," Gov. Rick Scott said in the morning. "This is not over. ... It could be the worst part of this is yet to come."
In areas the storm had already passed, residents and officials began to assess the damage.
Robert Tyler had feared the storm surge would flood his street two blocks from the Cape Canaveral beach. Tree branches fell, he could hear transformers exploding overnight, and the windows seemed as if they were about to blow in, despite the plywood over them.
But in the morning, there wasn't much water, his home didn't appear to have damage on first inspection, and his vehicles were unharmed.
"Overnight, it was scary as heck," Tyler said. "That description of a freight train is pretty accurate."
As the storm closed in over the past few days, an estimated 2 million people across the Southeast were warned to clear out.
In the end, Matthew largely skirted the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach area of over 6 million people and hugged closer to the coast farther north, menacing such cities as Vero Beach, Daytona Beach, Cape Canaveral, St. Augustine and Jacksonville. Farther north, it threatened such historic cities as Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.
At 12 p.m. EDT, Matthew was centered about 30 miles northeast of Daytona Beach and about 90 miles southeast of Jacksonville. Its wind speed was holding steady at 120 mph, and it was moving northwest at 12 mph.
About 500,000 people were told to evacuate the Jacksonville area, and another half-million were under orders to clear out in Georgia.
Forecasters said 15 inches of rain and a storm surge of up to 9 feet were possible in places.
National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb reminded people in the danger zone that storm surge is the biggest threat to life during a hurricane, even when the eye remains offshore.
"If you're hoping it's is just going to pass far enough offshore that this isn't a problem anymore — that is a very, very big mistake that you could make that could cost you your life," he said.
Airlines canceled at least 4,500 flights Wednesday through Saturday, including many in and out of Orlando, where all three of the resort city's world-famous theme parks — Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld — closed because of the storm.
Airports in South Florida began returning to normal, however, with American Airlines seeing its first arrival at its Miami hub at 9:05 a.m.
Despite the warnings to leave, many hunkered down Thursday night and hoped for the best.
The door to Darrell Etheridge's garage was blown off, but the Vero Beach resident said the storm was no big deal. There was no flooding and he had power for most of the night, only losing cable TV.
While the wind's howling "sounded like a pack of wolves," he said, "I got off damn good."
NASA reported mostly minor damage at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, including damage to some parked cars and an office building roof.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.