Hurricane Matthew batters Florida's east coast

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Hurricane Matthew sideswiped Florida's Atlantic coast early Friday, toppling trees onto homes and knocking out power to more than a half-million people but sparing some of the most heavily populated stretches of shoreline the catastrophic blow many had feared.

Authorities warned that the danger was far from over, with hundreds of miles of coastline in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina still under threat of torrential rain and dangerous storm surge as the most powerful hurricane to menace the Atlantic Seaboard in over a decade pushed north.

Meanwhile, the magnitude of the devastation inflicted by Matthew as it roared through the Caribbean became ever clearer, with officials in Haiti raising the official death toll there to nearly 300, while also cautioning that there were scores of bodies that had yet to be recorded.

In Florida, Matthew was downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane overnight, and its storm center, or eye, hung just offshore Friday morning as it moved up the coastline, sparing communities the full force of its 120 mph winds.

Still, it got close enough to knock down trees and power lines, and a 107 mph gust was recorded at Cape Canaveral. Nearly 600,000 people lost electricity.

Robert Tyler had feared the storm surge would flood his street two blocks from the Cape Canaveral beach. Tree branches fell, he could hear transformers exploding overnight, and the windows seemed as if they were about to blow in, despite the plywood over them.

But in the morning, there wasn't much water, his home didn't appear to have damage on first inspection, and his vehicles were unharmed.

"Overnight, it was scary as heck," Tyler said. "That description of a freight train is pretty accurate."

As the storm closed in over the past few days, an estimated 2 million people across the Southeast were warned to clear out.

In the end, Matthew largely skirted the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach areas of over 6 million people and hugged closer to the coast farther north, menacing such cities as Vero Beach, Daytona Beach, Cape Canaveral, St. Augustine and Jacksonville.

About 500,000 people were told to evacuate the Jacksonville area, and another half-million were under orders to clear out in Georgia.

Forecasters said Matthew could dump up to 15 inches of rain in some spots and cause a storm surge of 9 feet or more.

National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb reminded people in the danger zone that storm surge is the biggest threat to life during a hurricane, even when the storm's eye remains offshore.

"If you're hoping it's is just going to pass far enough offshore that this isn't a problem anymore — that is a very, very big mistake that you could make that could cost you your life," he said.

Airlines canceled at least 4,500 flights Wednesday through Saturday, including many in and out of Orlando, where all three of the resort city's world-famous theme parks — Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld — closed because of the storm.

Sheriff's spokesman Gary Davidson said at least four callers reported trees falling onto their homes in the Daytona Beach area. No injuries were reported.

Some people who refused to evacuate were stranded and called for help but were told to stay put until conditions improved enough for paramedics and firefighters to get to them, said emergency operations spokesman David Waters in Brevard County, the home of Cape Canaveral.

"A family called in that the roof just flew off their home on Merritt Island," Waters said.

NASA reported mostly minor damage at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, including damage to some parked cars and an office building roof.

WATCH: Georgia prepares for Hurricane Matthew

 

WATCH: Georgia prepares for Hurricane Matthew

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal ordered an evacuation of the entire Georgia coast, covering more than a half-million people. It was the first hurricane evacuation along the Georgia coast since 1999, when the state narrowly escaped Floyd.

"We have a house that sits right here on the water and we kind of said goodbye to it thinking that, you know, the house ... might not be here when we get back," said Jennifer Banker, a resident of Georgia's dangerously exposed St. Simons Island. "You know, we pray a lot and trust God to provide."

WATCH: St. Simons prepares for Hurricane Matthew

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Kennedy reported from Fort Lauderdale. Associated Press reporters Holbrook Mohr in Orlando; Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Jennifer Kay, Freida Frisaro, Curt Anderson in Miami; Marcia Dunn in Cape Canaveral, Florida; Janelle Cogan in Orlando, Florida; Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia; Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, North Carolina; Jeffrey Collins on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina; Jack Jones and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina; and Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

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