S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster said he likely would decide by Friday whether Palmetto State residents should evacuate to get out of the path of Hurricane Irma.
In the meantime, S.C. residents should “pretend that a Category 3 hurricane is arriving tomorrow morning and ... get ready,” McMaster said Wednesday at the S.C. Emergency Management Division’s operations center.
As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, the Category 5 storm was tracking west-northwest at 16 mph, pulling away from the northernmost Virgin Islands. Projections show South Carolina experiencing tropical force winds as early as Sunday night. However, the storm’s effects are most likely to begin early Monday.
Storm surges along the coast could pose the biggest threat to the state, according to Frank Alsheimer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Columbia.
Irma is expected to drop from three to six inches of rain in the state with up to 10 inches in some areas. The heaviest rainfall is expected along the coast.
That rainfall could cause flooding, especially in areas that are prone to flood. However, the storm is not expected to produce rainfall and flooding like the state experienced in October 2015 or in 2016 with Hurricane Matthew, or Houston recently experienced with Hurricane Harvey.
That is because Irma is moving more quickly than Matthew and “rainfall tends to be more a function of the speed of the storm than the strength,” Alsheimer said.
“Right now, there doesn't seem to be anything to make it slow down or stall like the 2015 event (in South Carolina) or Harvey.”
‘Assume you’re having to leave’
McMaster urged residents to get ready for the storm’s impact.
South Carolinians should take care of any needed paperwork, contact relatives, get needed medicines and other necessities, ensure animals are safe, batten down windows, secure lawn furniture and gas up their cars to prepare for an evacuation if one is required, he said.
“Assume you're having to leave your home or your business and not come back for several days,” he said, adding the state’s emergency response team is ready.
But, he added, “We do not have the authority to order ... preparedness of the citizens.”
McMaster declared a “state of emergency” about noon Wednesday "as a precaution.” His announcement came shortly after state forecasters warned Irma still could be a “major hurricane” when it reaches South Carolina.
McMaster’s executive order allows state agencies to coordinate their efforts. It also allows for the S.C. National Guard to move into position to prepare for a possible evacuation, most likely of the Lowcountry, and recovery efforts.
McMaster said he also is requesting a federal disaster declaration from President Donald Trump so that the state can benefit from federal aid and resources to help with the storm response.
"I am not ordering an evacuation at this time,” McMaster said, adding he would order one “at the appropriate time, when and if it gets here."
Lane reversals along Interstate 26 from the coast are now a permanent part of the state’s emergency plan if an evacuation is needed, Emergency Management spokesman Derrec Becker said.
Adjutant General Bob Livingston said it is too early to tell exactly what path the hurricane is going to take. But, he added, officials will know more in the next 24 to 48 hours.
Meanwhile, emergency officials are identifying shelter locations and the staffing that will be needed to operate them, Livingston said, adding shelters will open as soon as any evacuation orders are issued.
The state also is working with FEMA, the federal disaster agency, to provide transportation to South Carolinians who may not be able to get out of vulnerable areas on their own.
Irma could make landfall in South Carolina as a Category 3 or 4 hurricane, according to a Wednesday update by forecasters at the National Weather Service in Columbia. The powerful storm would then move inland, impacting areas as far away from the coast as the Midlands.
People in vulnerable areas should review their personal safety plans, become familiar with local evacuation zones in coastal counties and locate the nearest hurricane evacuation routes, McMaster said.
That information is in the 2017 S.C. Hurricane Guide, available at all Walgreen’s stores statewide, rest areas along interstates and for download at scemd.org.
S.C. reps vote for Harvey aid
If South Carolina gets hit hard by Irma, eyes will turn to Washington for help in the form of federal aid.
But the ability of S.C. lawmakers to get that money could depend on how willing they are to help other states get assistance they need.
In 2012, aid for Hurricane Sandy relief was stymied for months by fiscal conservatives. But lawmakers acted quickly Wednesday, approving nearly $8 billion for Hurricane Harvey relief.
All seven U.S. House members from South Carolina voted for the Harvey aid. In the past, some fiscal hawks in the delegation either have endorsed or voted to require that massive spending packages are linked to offsetting spending cuts, absent from the Harvey aid.
It’s unclear how South Carolina’s GOP lawmakers will vote on upcoming legislation expected to tie Harvey disaster relief to a three-month extension of government operations and a debt ceiling increase.
Those who vote “no,” however, are not likely to get a pass should the tables turn and South Carolina need aid.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said Wednesday he didn’t like bundling hurricane relief, a debt ceiling increase and a government funding bill into the same package. But, he added, “Right now ... helping the hurricane victims is the priority.”
— Emma Dumain, McClatchy