TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – After being pelted by a brutal storm that killed at least five Floridians, the state has shifted into recovery mode while still keeping tabs on deadly Hurricane Matthew.
The massive hurricane wiped out power to more than 1 million customers in the Sunshine State as it inched it way up the East Coast Thursday and Friday.
But the eye of Matthew, which caused massive flooding and hundreds of deaths in Haiti, did not make landfall until the storm approached the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina on Saturday.
For that, Gov. Rick Scott — who traveled throughout Florida in anticipation of Matthew’s arrival, calling for people to evacuate with the warning that the storm “is going to kill people” — said during a press conference at Jacksonville’s Cecil Field on Saturday that Florida was “blessed.”
“If it had a direct impact hit, it would have been a lot worse for our families,” Scott said.
Scott thanked those who heeded his warnings and said he hoped they would obey orders to evacuate in the future.
“That’s what I worry about now,” Scott said. “You look at the loop of this thing. It’s going to come back around, maybe. Are people going to take it seriously enough?”
Forecast models from the National Hurricane Center on Friday had the path of Matthew possibly looping back to South Florida, as a depression or tropical storm, by the middle of next week. On Saturday, updated tracking models still showed the storm making a southern turn in the open Atlantic, but much further offshore than originally predicted.
After a helicopter tour along the Atlantic coast from Daytona Beach to Jacksonville on Saturday morning, Scott described seeing “mucky” waters, “unbelievable” beach erosion, pockets of damaged coastal roads, downed trees and downed power lines, and flooding.
“From the helicopter, you can’t see the downed power lines as easy, but you can see the beach erosion. It’s really bad,” Scott said.
Inspections were of barrier-island bridges were underway, and tolls remained suspended through at least Sunday night, to allow evacuees to return home. About 5,900 people remained in 70 shelters throughout early Saturday afternoon.
Law enforcement agencies and members of the Florida National Guard continued search and rescue operations Saturday. Scott has deployed 3,500 members of the Guard for the hurricane.
All airports except the Northeast Florida Regional Airport in Saint Augustine have reopened, along with all seaports except JAXPort and the Port of Fernandina.
“Boy this state is a resilient state,” Scott said. “We know there is a lot of work to do, but this state is going to come back.”
Three deaths linked to the storm were reported in St. Lucie County, along with one fatality each in Putnam and Volusia counties.
The number is far short of reports from Haiti, where Matthew is blamed for the deaths of at least 271 by the island’s Civil Protection Agency. Reuters, citing local officials, has reported the number could surpass 842 deaths.
By mid-day Saturday, the number of Florida homes and businesses without power was down from a peak of 1.13 million —11 percent of all utility customers — late Friday to 763,828, about 7 percent of the state’s utility customers.
The largest number of power outages remained in Duval, Volusia and Brevard counties.
As of Saturday morning, Jacksonville Electric Authority reported that 227,000 customers, mostly in Duval County, were without power and 3,500 lacked water.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry promised that the city would work as quickly as possible to restore services.
“There’s a lot of people in pain right now, people without electricity. People are hungry. They’re tired,” Curry, appearing with Scott Saturday morning, said. “We’re going to ride each other hard. We’re going to ride our utility. We’re going to ride all of our workers to get this community back together as quickly and as a safely as possible.”
Juno Beach-based Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility, pledged that power would be restored to all essential customers by the end of Sunday, while pockets that have been flooded and severely damaged may take until Monday.
“We have made significant progress restoring power to our customers in the southern and western parts of the state, and we won’t stop working around the clock until everyone’s lights are back on,” FPL President & CEO Eric Silagy said in a statement.
The company reported that power had been restored to 725,000 homes impacted by the storm, while another 400,000 were still in the dark.
Duke Energy Florida also expected to have the bulk of its customers back on-line by Sunday after a little more than 200,000 — mostly in Orange, Seminole, Volusia and Lake counties — customers lost power this week.
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