TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. — Hurricane Matthew left a pattern of destruction in Georgia that was sometimes hard to fathom, with beachfront condos weathering the storm without a broken window while falling trees killed three people as far as 70 miles from the coast.
Overall the storm failed to deliver the devastation local officials had feared as it raked Georgia’s 100-mile coastline overnight Friday before passing Saturday morning. But it left plenty of misery in its wake.
Savannah-Chatham County police said a man was killed after a tree fell crashing into his house. In Bulloch County, 70 miles inland, Deputy Coroner Richard Pylant confirmed a 68-year old man who was at home alone died after two falling trees sent his ceiling collapsing on top of him. A third man, also in Bulloch County, died when he crashed into a tree that fell in front of his car.
Shattered limbs and burly live oaks ripped from the ground by their roots littered Savannah’s downtown historic district. Some neighborhoods flooded near inland waterways swollen with rain and coastal surge. Snapped power lines made many roads impassable and left thousands without electricity across the city.
And thousands who evacuated ahead of the storm were now being told to stay away — for how long wasn’t known — as roads get cleared and downed electrical lines repaired.
“This place is all tore up here,” said Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach. “No joke about it.”
But many who stayed to ride out the Category 2 hurricane were surprised the damage wasn’t far worse.
Chris and Ali Paolini stayed home on St. Simons Island, where around 3 a.m. Saturday they heard the wind begin to roar like a locomotive. After the storm passed, the couple drove around the island Saturday marveling at how few homes were damaged in the midst of so many fallen trees.
“It’s just a mess, but not a whole lot of real damage,” Ali Paolini said. “We were spared, I feel like.”
Those who ignored evacuation orders on Tybee Island, 18 miles east of Savannah, got a similar glimpse when the weather calmed. A low-lying picnic area behind City Hall was underwater. A street sign had fallen onto a parked car. Shingles and shredded roofing was ripped off some beachfront condos, but their windows appeared intact. Nobody had electricity.
Richard Fair said his lights didn’t go out until 2:30 a.m. And then the storm showed its worst.
“The fence around my house went down just like matchsticks,” Fair said. “It was insane. We lost power and then it was just wind and darkness.”
Georgia Power said about 220,000 homes and businesses on the coast were still without electricity Saturday afternoon. About 5,000 workers were dispatched to the storm-struck counties to restore power and remove debris, said Aaron Strickland, the utility’s emergency director.
The F.J. Torras Causeway that connects St. Simons Island to the mainland remained closed Saturday, with law officers at the entrance turning away anxious residents.
Alan Tucker, a St. Simons resident since 1967, was among those trying to go home to make sure his house was secure.
“It’s bad, but it could have been a whole lot worse,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of praying the last two, three days.”
Gov. Nathan Deal warned Saturday that coastal Georgians remained “in a dangerous situation.”
Some found out the hard way.
The Coast Guard rescued a man stranded on a sailboat in the Bull River near Tybee Island, officials said.
And a woman found herself in neck-deep floodwaters when she tried to cross a submerged stretch of President Street, which links downtown Savannah to the highway to Tybee Island.
The shivering woman identified herself only as Valerie, saying she was homeless and had spent the night under a nearby overpass until the storm washed out her camp.
“It wiped out our tent, our tarp and washed away all our blankets and clothes,” she said.
Chatham County officials said in a news release that a tidal gauge at Tybee Island measured 12.5 feet of water at high tide early Saturday as the storm churned just offshore. That broke a previous record of 12.2 feet set when Hurricane David came ashore in 1979.
Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman said that’s about 4.5 feet higher than a normal high tide — a substantial storm surge, but about half the amount officials had feared.
“What I’m seeing is not nearly as bad as what I expected,” Jason Buelterman said after getting an airborne view of the damage by helicopter. “I was thinking last night when I was watching the radar at 2 o’clock this morning this was going to be a Katrina type situation.”
Foody reported from Brunswick, Georgia. Associated Press writer Jonathan Landrum Jr. contributed to this report from Atlanta.