While Hurricane Matthew weakened to a Category 2 storm off the Florida coast on Friday, the storm threatens the Carolinas on Saturday with 110 mph winds and potentially deadly floods.
“What we feared is now happening in North Carolina,” Gov. Pat McCrory said Friday. “(Matthew) will have a major impact on North Carolina, with heavy winds and rains crossing much of the state. The major concern is life-threatening rain and water throughout our state.”
The state could see the most flooding since Hurricane Floyd in 1999, he said.
Some areas of the coast can expect at least 15 inches of rain and 2-to-6-foot storm surges. Matthew could pack 50- to 60-mph winds, with gusts over 70 mph, McCrory said.
In Charlotte, rain forecasts called for 2-to-4 inches of rain over Friday and Saturday and wind gusts of 30 to 40 mph Saturday. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for Cabarrus, Mecklenburg and Union counties and the S.C. counties of York and Chester from 6 p.m. Friday until late Saturday.
Forecasts show Matthew will have the greatest impact in North Carolina starting early Saturday with heavy rainfall, storm surge and winds across eastern and central parts of the state, McCrory said.
President Barack Obama on Friday signed an emergency declaration that makes federal emergency aid available for 66 central and eastern N.C. counties.
Matthew, responsible for hundreds of deaths, should lose power as it churns northward off the Florida and Georgia coasts, says Lauren Visin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Center in Greer, S.C.
It sideswiped Florida’s Atlantic coast early Friday, swamping streets, toppling trees onto homes and knocking out power to more than 1 million people. But it stayed just far enough offshore to prevent major damage to cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
Two women died in separate events in Florida. One was killed when a tree fell on her house in the Daytona area and the other died when a tree came down on a camper in Putnam County.
The storm weakened to a Category 2 hurricane on Friday afternoon. But it still packed maximum sustained winds of 110 mph as its eye “wobbled” northward just off the coasts of Georgia and northeast Florida, the National Hurricane Center reported at 8 p.m.
Matthew was still expected to carry heavy rainfall, damaging storm surges and winds of at least 75 mph as it passes over or near the South Carolina shore on Saturday. Based on its current course, it would then batter the North Carolina coast before heading out to sea.
“The trends suggest the storm will pass very, very, very close to the South Carolina coast, if not a landfall,” Visin said. “All of coastal South Carolina will experience hurricane-force winds within the next 24 hours.”
Forecasters have extended hurricane warnings up the Carolinas coast to Surf City, north of Topsail Beach. The watch area for the storm now stretches to Cape Lookout. A tropical storm warning is in effect from Surf City all the way to Duck in the northern Outer Banks. The watch area includes the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds.
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Steve Pfaff, a weather service metereologist in Wilmington, says forecaster expect wind gusts of up to 85 mph along the coast.
Pfaff says 12 to 13 inches of rain are expected along the Grand Strand north to Wilmington, with as much as 8 to 10 inches falling as far as 60 miles to the west. “Life-threatening flash flooding is likely, especially Saturday and Saturday night,” Pfaff said.
The National Hurricane Center continues to warn of potential “life-threatening inundation” along most of the Carolinas’ coast from the combination of torrential rainfall, winds and storm surges of up to 9 feet as far north as Edisto Beach, S.C.
Duke Energy spokesman Craig Paridy said the power company has 2,300 repair personnel ready for deployment once the storm damage is known. Locally, he said Duke’s meteorologists will track the storm and its potential impact to service areas.
Millions of residents as far north as Cape Fear remain under evacuation orders. A state of emergency exists across both Carolinas.
More than 100 shelters are open across South Carolina and southeast North Carolina, and hundreds of thousands of residents and tourists have been evacuated from seven counties in South Carolina.
Hotels across the Charlotte area, already flush with reservations for Saturday’s NASCAR race and Monday night’s Panthers game, now are fielding calls from evacuees. While there were some rooms available Friday night in Charlotte, other area hotels said they were sold out, due in part to people fleeing the storm.
Taylor Powers, who works at the Marriott Courtyard in Huntersville, said 14 of the hotel's 90 rooms were taken by guests from Florida.
Matthew was expected to cross into South Carolina sometime Saturday morning, putting historic Charleston at perhaps the greatest risk, authorities say.
The National Hurricane Center said a storm surge that occurs at high tide could push water 4 to 6 feet deep around the historic city.The full force of the storm is expect to hit the city by late morning or midday.
The National Weather Service said flooding in the Lowcountry could be worse than last October, when intense rainfall from Columbia to the coast closed Charleston for several days. Up to 14 inches of rain could fall by Sunday night.
Staff Writer Mark Washburn, the Associated Press, the Post and Courier of Charleston, and the Sun News of Myrtle Beach contributed.