A few miles made the difference between a storm that could have been so much worse and one that was already bad enough.

With at least 30 people killed in the U.S., and more than 1,000 killed in Haiti, Hurricane Matthew was one of the worst Atlantic hurricanes since Sandy. It tied as the fifth longest-lived major hurricane in the Atlantic since satellite records began in the late 1960s, and was the longest-lived major hurricane to form after Sept. 25, according to Colorado State University hurricane expert Phil Klotzbach. A major hurricane is defined as Category 3 or higher.

Matthew left a swath of devastation from the Caribbean to the Carolinas and set several records. Its name will almost certainly be retired by the World Meteorological Organization, meaning no other storm will ever bear the name.

Hurricane Matthew

Hurricane Matthew as it skirted the coast of Florida on Oct. 7.

Recovery efforts began as soon as the winds and rains lifted, with millions trying to put their lives and homes back together. That effort will take much longer in some places than others; in impoverished Haiti, damage to crops and the spread of cholera could mean Matthew’s impacts last for years.

Matthew began its run as a tropical storm, forming over the Windward Islands and battering them with strong winds and heavy rain. As it moved westward over warm Caribbean Sea waters it strengthened rapidly, jumping from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 5 in 24 hours — the third strongest rapid intensification on record for the Atlantic, according to Klotzbach.

At its peak, Matthew was the strongest storm in the Atlantic basin since Felix in 2007.

The role of climate change in hurricanes is still one being studied, though there are indications that the most intense storms, like Matthew, will become a bigger proportion of all hurricanes in the future. That trend has been noted already in the Atlantic, though it is unclear whether it is due to global warming or some other climate influence.

After Matthew’s fringes brushed South America, bringing heavy rains to parts of Colombia and Venezuela, it made a northward turn, barreling toward the heart of the Caribbean. Thought it weakened slightly to a Category 4, Matthew maintained that strength for a considerable time — according to Klotzbach, it was the longest-lived Category 4-5 storm on record for the eastern Caribbean and for any Atlantic hurricane in October.

Hurricane Matthew rainfall

Rainfall amounts over the last seven days in the Southeast, most of which were due to Hurricane Matthew.

Credit:

Matthew slammed into the westernmost tip of Haiti as a Category 4 storm with 145 mph winds and torrential rains that reached more than 20 inches in places, particularly high terrain areas. Flooding was widespread on the steep, denuded landscape.

At least 1,000 people in Haiti perished during the storm, according to Reuters, and some 1.4 million are in need of humanitarian aid, the U.N. said. In towns that bore the brunt of the storm’s winds, whole blocks were leveled, reported the New York Times.

Matthew continued to impact Haiti as its eye emerged over the Gulf of Gonaves. It stayed a Category 4 hurricane until it hit Cuba, devastating the coastal town of Baracoa. So far no deaths have been reported in Cuba, which has highly coordinated evacuation efforts.

Interactions with land finally took a toll on the hurricane and it weakened to a Category 3 storm with 120 mph winds as it began to plow through the Bahamas. Once again, warm waters allowed the storm to ramp back up, and it hit the town of Freeport as a Category 4 storm. Storm surge was the main impact in the Bahamas, reaching more than 10 feet in spots.

 

 

As it headed toward the coast of Florida, prompting evacuation orders up and down the coast, Matthew made a couple of small eastward jogs and its center underwent reorganization. These changes meant the storm weakened back to a Category 3 storm and its center stayed just offshore as it paralleled the coast.

While that kept the worst winds from hitting land and helped mitigate the storm surge impact somewhat, that path just offshore also helped the storm retain its strength for longer.

As Matthew moved along the Southeast coast, tropical storm force winds were measured widely, as hurricane-force gusts in a few spots. The highest gust measured, according to NWS records, was 96 mph on Tybee Island, off the coast of Savannah, Ga.

Storm surge inundated numerous coastal cities and towns, including St. Augustine, Fla., Jacksonville, Fla., Savannah, Charleston and Myrtle Beach, S.C. Charleston Harbor saw its third highest flood crest. In Jacksonville, the surge and winds ripped off part of the historic pier. The surge damaged numerous beachfront houses and eroded protective dunes.

 

 

In one of the stranger stories to emerge from the storm, the surge churned up Civil War-era cannonballs from the seafloor and washed them ashore in Folly Beach, S.C. Bomb disposal crews disposed of them through controlled detonations.

Storm surge is one of the clearest ways that climate change will worsen the impacts of hurricanes that make landfall, as sea level rise means that such surge reaches higher than it once did.

Matthew gradually weakened as it moved northward over cooler waters and into a less favorable atmospheric environment. It finally made landfall in the U.S. southeast of McClellanville, S.C., as a Category 1 hurricane.

 

 

As it moved toward North Carolina, its main impact changed to heavy rainfall, which reached more than 14 inches near Fayetteville, N.C., and caused numerous creeks and rivers to overrun their banks and widespread flash flooding that turned intersections into lakes and washed out parts of roads. Downpours are becoming more intense as the world warms because as the atmosphere heats up, it can hold more moisture for storms to drop as rain. 

Many people were caught unawares in their homes and cars, prompting hundreds of swift water rescues in the Fayetteville area alone. While some of the water has since subsided, a few rivers in North Carolina won’t peak until later this week.

Power outages were widespread across the affected U.S. states and could be seen in nighttime satellite images. At their peaks, there 1.2 million customers without power in Florida, more than 300,000 in Georgia, more than 850,000 in South Carolina and more than 800,000 in North Carolina.

 

 

The exact toll wrought by Matthew will likely come into increasing focus as the days and weeks go by and officials and residents can take clear stock.

With its unusual path and considerable impacts, Matthew is likely to be a much studied storm, helped along by the numerous measurements taken by satellites, hurricane hunters, ocean buoys and radar.