Traffic backed up at the intersection of Interstate 26 and Interstate 77 Tuesday morning as state officials closed the eastbound lanes to make way for Lowcountry residents evacuating because of Hurricane Florence.
By the end of the morning work rush around 10 a.m, the congestion had cleared up.
As of about 1:30 p.m. the regular lanes of I-26 westbound are backed up for about 5 miles from its intersection with I-77 as evacuees pour into the Columbia area. The congestion has traffic moving at less than 15 MPH, according to SCDOT maps.
All eastbound lanes of I-26 beyond mile marker 115 near I-77 have been converted to westbound use. That means travel on I-26 from Columbia to Charleston is no longer possible. The closed lanes begin near I-26’s intersection with Interstate 77 in Lexington County, one of the area’s busiest intersections.
“The last time we did the reversal traffic flowed really well and there wasn’t much congestion at all,” said David Jones of the SC Highway Patrol, adding he’s unsure what to expect in the coming days.
At 5 a.m. Tuesday, SCDOT workers began putting out cones and barrels to block off I-26 eastbound. The block was completed around 9 a.m.
The lane reversal was set to begin at noon Tuesday but began an hour early, Gov. Henry McMaster announced.
The lane reversal will stay in placed until all motorists are off the reversed lanes and tropical storm force winds arrive, according to a spokesperson for the SCDOT.
“Once motorists get to the Columbia area, we’re going to return the reverse traffic back to the normal configuration just before Interstate 77,” said Rob Perry, SCDOT director of traffic engineering, in a video about the evacuation.
To assist evacuees on I-26, the SCDOT set up “Comfort Stations,” which are like rest areas with complimentary bottles of water.
Horry County will have two four-lane reversals along U.S. 501 — from S.C. 544 to U.S. 378, and between S.C. 22 and S.C. 576 near Marion County.
The City of Columbia offered a list of flood prone streets for traffic to avoid, including the intersection of Main and Whaley, Gervais and Laurens, and Blossom and Henderson, including more.
Several of the gas stations at the intersection of U.S. 21 and I-26, where the lane reversal begins in Columbia, were busier than normal Tuesday morning.
“People are just trying to get out, trying to get out of the state, literally,” said Joseyka Tirado, a clerk at Raceway station.
Jerry Hyatt, a machine shop owner at Hilton Head, was skeptical about whether that area of the state would be impacted by Hurricane Florence. But he left anyway because of the mandatory evacuation order.
“Better safe than sorry,” said Hyatt, who was headed back to his hometown of Bristol, Va. “So we just decided that we would drive back north.”
The southbound lanes of U.S. 21 were busy Tuesday morning because of people trying to head south to Florida to avoid the hurricane.