BRUNSWICK, Ga. — More than 280,000 homes and businesses still remain without power in coastal Georgia as state officials are focusing on restoring efforts after punishing winds and rains from Hurricane Matthew toppled trees and caused flooding.
About 5,000 workers are entering the storm-struck counties Saturday, focusing their attention on reevaluating the area, restoring power and removing debris, said Georgia Power emergency director Aaron Strickland.
Gov. Nathan Deal reiterated at a news conference the importance of evacuees resisting the urge of returning to their homes after the storm passed. Chatham County experienced the most outages with more than 140,000. Other storm-struck counties include Glynn, Effingham, Bulloch and Liberty.
“I understand people are anxious to get back home. When they woke up this morning and saw the sun shining and the winds subsiding, the great temptation is to think that it’s safe to return home,” Deal said. “You will find out that’s not the case. We are still in a dangerous situation.”
The Coast Guard rescued a man stranded on a sailboat in Bull River near Tybee Island, officials said. A helicopter crew lowered a rescue swimmer who pulled the man up at 9:26 a.m. Saturday. He was airlifted by a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter and taken to Hunter Army Air Field.
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.
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.
The island of 3,000 residents was evacuated ahead of the storm, and all emergency responders left as well. Buelterman said he did not have any early assessments of flooding or damage.
In Brunswick, Eddie Mobley rode out the storm in his house, feeling fairly confident the structure originally built in 1898 could withstand a storm. Mobley, who owns a general contracting business, said his crews boarded up about 20 homes before the storm and all have escaped without major damage. One house got some water in its basement on Friday afternoon as heavy rain and high tide affected the Brunswick area before Hurricane Matthew’s arrival.
Mobley did decide to sleep downstairs, though, after hearing several tree limbs pop from lots behind his house.
“It was a lot of wind and rain,” he said. “But I didn’t even have a single shingle off when I came outside this morning.”
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.
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.
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. 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.
Bynum reported from Savannah. Associated Press writers Kate Brumback and Jonathan Landrum Jr. contributed to this report from Atlanta.