Heaving ashore with a historic storm surge, Hurricane Matthew pummeled the South Carolina coast Saturday, ripping out dunes, flooding Charleston and plucking trees from the Lowcountry’s sodden soil.
For 12 hours, the coast was under a siege of water and wind. Traffic lights danced like giddy puppets, palmetto palms skittered down streets tumbleweed-style and the sea spat up vile detritus at fancy resorts the length of the state. In Charleston’s historic district, water rose headlight-high.
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Matthew came ashore in McClellanville, a quaint fishing village and hurricane magnet – it was the same place Hugo made landfall 27 years ago.
“That’s part of living on the coast in the southeast U.S.,” said Rutledge Leland, mayor of McClellanville, whose town was ravaged by Hugo but largely unscarred by Matthew.
Matthew bathed the coast in hot, sticky tropical air it had sucked up in its murderous rampage through the Caribbean. Whitecaps raced across Charleston Harbor, swollen by a 9-foot storm surge, the third highest ever recorded after Hurricane Hugo and the great storm of 1940.
Then there was the remarkable disappearing act: When the winds reversed and the tide fell Saturday afternoon, the harbor emptied like a tub, plunging 3 feet in just an hour.
Charleston officials estimated 100 streets were blocked by debris or flooded impassibly. It would be Sunday before the true extent of damage is known, said Mayor John Tecklenburg.
Though its winds were largely spent by the time it hit South Carolina – an 88 mph gust was the top speed recorded at Hilton Head – Matthew’s girth was enormous, dumping nearly half a foot of rain in parts of Columbia, 100 miles inland. Along Interstate 20 in Richland County, winds snapped a slender pine that fell onto a Highway Patrol cruiser.
Interstate 95 was blocked by felled trees near the Georgia line. Seven people were rescued from high water in Florence. And in Andrews, a town west of Georgetown, Matthew raised the dead – a casket bobbed to the surface in a flooded graveyard.
In Myrtle Beach, a storm surge knocked down the Springmaid Pier, once the longest pier on the Grand Strand.
Authorities closed the towering Ravenel Bridge between Charleston and the barrier islands for hours so engineers could inspect the city’s signature span for damage.
No deaths were immediately reported. About 300,000 people fled inland in advance of the storm, and more than a million were without power afterward. Crews poured in from Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia to help, said Todd Carter of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina.
And stay away
Gov. Nikki Haley said evacuees shouldn’t go home until roads were safe and hazards eliminated.
“Now’s when the frustration sets in,” said Haley. “What I’m asking from you now is patience.”
Beneath a patchwork of plywood, Sullivan’s Island weathered the storm well, suffering only some fallen trees, downed power lines and moderate street flooding. But Mayor Pat O’Neil also did not want people returning until a thorough damage assessment was made.
“It’s no time for people to be coming back,” he said.
On Isle of Palms, the raging sea inundated the beach, clawing cliffs 4 feet tall from the mounded dunes.
Edisto Beach was slammed. Multiple structures were ripped apart. Sand and debris covered a seaside road, and police sealed off the city to outsiders.
Palmetto Boulevard, the town's main drag, was littered with a strange variety of flotsam: doors, wood, tires, a washing machine and a toilet bowl.
“We feel like we were ground zero,” said Mayor Jane Darby.
Charleston International Airport was expected to resume operations Sunday after a two-day shutdown.
Among the confirmed passengers will be Shari Campbell of Seattle, whose vacation week at Hilton Head, booked nine months ago, turned into an odyssey of menace.
On Tuesday, she was told that she’d have to leave the island because of the storm evacuation, so she and her husband Tim got a room at the Marriott in downtown Charleston. Thursday afternoon brought a knock at the door – another eviction notice.
They went westward, landing a room in North Charleston at a Fairfield Inn, which lost electricity overnight during the storm. Staff there lit stairwells and hallways with green and blue glow sticks, adding spooky illumination to accompany Matthew’s ghostly shrieks.
Campbell took it in stride – adversity is her traveling companion. She went through superstorm Sandy, was in Greece when the economy collapsed and her husband Tim ran the Boston Marathon the year of the bombing.
“I have a friend who says she’s always going to run her travel plans by me,” Campbell said. “If you're traveling, I’m not.”
Jeff Siner, Justine Miller and McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Martin Merzer contributed to this report.