BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Floodwaters several feet deep submerged a long stretch of President Street, which links downtown Savannah to the highway to Tybee Island.
Cassandra Coleman and her boyfriend were stopped in her car at the impasse Saturday morning when they saw a woman wading through floodwaters waters up to her neck.
“We thought she was going to fall. She kept staggering through,” Coleman said.
The shivering woman made it 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.”
She said she weathered the storm under a tent near an overpass that crosses the low-lying road. But then floodwaters washed it away.
“It wiped out our tent, our tarp and washed away all our blankets and clothes,” she said.
She left with a bystander who offered to assist her in finding help.
Nearly 270,000 homes and businesses were without electricity in coastal Georgia on Saturday after punishing wind and rains from Hurricane Matthew toppled trees and caused flooding from the oak-shaded squares of Savannah to the Florida line.
Even after the center of the storm had passed, howling winds bent treetops in Savannah’s downtown historic district. Shattered limbs from burly live oak trees littered the streets and some streets were flooded.
The road to Tybee Island 18 miles east of Savannah was blocked by fallen trees and power lines. The island’s mayor, Jason Buelterman, had no early damage assessment. He said the amount of storm surge swamping the island, though significant, appeared to be less than officials had feared.
Water levels at Tybee Island reached 12.5 feet at high tide early Saturday, Chatham County officials said in a news release. That topped the prior record of 12.2 feet set when Hurricane David came ashore in 1979.
“We’re looking at about a 4 1/2 foot surge, which is significantly better than what was predicted,” said Buelterman, who noted a normal high tide level is about 8 feet.
Outages were piling up in the storm-struck counties along the coast. Georgia Power said nearly 270,000 customers were without power Saturday morning, including more than 141,000 in Savannah and surrounding Chatham County. Other counties in the storm-struck area include Glynn, Effingham, Bulloch and Liberty.
Utility crews were expected to head toward the storm-inflicted areas Saturday after the weather clears, said Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft.
Gov. Nathan Deal called up an additional 1,000 Georgia National Guard troops to assist state and local authorities with the emergency response to Matthew. This doubles the number of activated state national guard troops to 2,000, Deal announced via his official Twitter account.
Gov. Deal said Hurricane Matthew evacuees should not rush back to their homes in coastal Georgia after the storm passes.
Roadways and bridges need to be reassessed to make sure they are safe for passage, Deal said. The governor said he doesn’t want people to put their lives in jeopardy until after utility crews are able to inspect the area.
Georgia has only 100 miles of coast tucked between South Carolina and Florida, a relatively small target for direct hurricane strikes. It’s also the westernmost part of the eastern seaboard, which helps explain why no major hurricane — Category 3 or greater — has made landfall on the Georgia coast since 1898.
But that doesn’t mean the past 118 years have been storm-free. Hurricane David made landfall in Georgia as a Category 2 storm in 1979, following a very similar coastline-hugging path as Matthew. But David was a weaker storm and did little overall damage.
The Georgia coast last evacuated for Hurricane Floyd in 1999, but that storm took a last minute turn and came ashore in North Carolina.
Tropical Storm Hermine sent tree limbs falling and caused widespread power outages in the Savannah area barely a month ago, arriving over land after coming ashore as a hurricane on the Gulf coast of Florida.
In coastal Savannah, Dennis Jones, emergency management director for Chatham County, told a news conference Friday morning that people had just a few more hours before powerful winds start hitting.
“Once the wind starts blowing, we’re pulling all emergency services off the street,” he said.
Police in several coastal counties announced they would be enforcing curfews.
Transportation officials announced the closure at noon Friday of the Talmadge Memorial Bridge, which spans the Savannah River between downtown Savannah and Hutchinson Island. Two hours earlier and farther south, they closed the Sidney Lanier Bridge to the barrier islands off Brunswick, which include Jekyll Island, Sea Island, St. Simons Island and Little St. Simons Island.
Officials said high winds would likely make it difficult for drivers to control their vehicles on the bridges.
Robin and Greg Bontrager removed loose items including sails and canvas from their boat, and double-tied it to Dock 3 in Brunswick in the pouring rain Friday morning.
Retired schoolteachers who decided life was too short to skip adventures, the couple lives on the 42-foot Hunter sailboat, called “Always and Forever.” But on Friday, they were leaving with their dogs for a motel.
“No one ever wants to leave their home, whether it’s a forest fire, a tornado, a hurricane, whatever the natural disaster might be,” she said. “And we’re not sure what we’re going to come back to.”
Bynum reported from Savannah. Associated Press writers Kate Brumback and Jonathan Landrum Jr. contributed to this report from Atlanta.