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Columbia plays host to Hurricane Matthew evacuees

Woody Jones, Chinadoll and Gail Hawkins, of Charleston, left, look over the menu at the Blue Marlin with Meghan McGill and her children Hailey and Alexander.
Woody Jones, Chinadoll and Gail Hawkins, of Charleston, left, look over the menu at the Blue Marlin with Meghan McGill and her children Hailey and Alexander. croldan@thestate.com

Alex and Stefany Marks and their three children left Beaufort at 9 a.m. Wednesdayand arrived at the Chapin home of Stefany’s parents at about 1 p.m., taking back roads all the way.

The Markses expect to be in the area until at least Saturday, when Alex, a pastor at First Scots Presbyterian Church, has to decide whether to have Sunday services. While they are here they plan to attend the Orangeburg County Fair, if possible, go to a movie and visit Riverbanks Zoo.

They are not alone. About a half-million people across the entire coast are expected to evacuate the South Carolina coast in advance of Hurricane Matthew. And many will be guests of friends, family, hotels and shelters in the Capital City.

“All your crazy cousins are coming to town,” Marks said. “If you have to be stuck somewhere, Columbia isn’t a bad place to be.”

Gov. Nikki Haley on Wednesday ordered the evacuation first of Beaufort and Charleston counties. That started in earnest mid-afternoon. And Horry County will evacuate Thursday. Haley called for everyone to move 100 miles inland.

That’s Columbia. And the Capital City, now expected to be minimally impacted by the storm, is preparing to host a hurricane party.

“Basically we have the reverse of the entire summer packed into three days,” said attorney Kyle Michel, a board member of First Thursdays, a monthly open house and festival held up and down Main Street. “Instead of the whole state going to the beach sometime in June, July or August, we have the whole coast coming (here) for the weekend.”

Michel said the Main Street merchants contemplated canceling the event but decided to go ahead anyway, as rough weather is not supposed to arrive before Friday.

“We haven’t projected whether we will have a crush of people down here, but we might,” he said.

Restaurants and bars are expecting big business this weekend, especially if University of South Carolina officials decide to go forward with the USC-Georgia football game, which now looks likely.

“A lot of people will be coming to town and staying with friends and relatives,” said Ryan Dukes, who owns the Columbia landmark restaurant Blue Marlin with his father, Bill.

“They are not going to want to put anyone out or expect their hosts to cook,” he said. “We expect them to take their hosts out to eat as a sign of appreciation. So we have staffed our business to be prepared for not only the football game, but evacuees as well.”

Gail Hawkins, Woody Jones and his service dog Chinadoll arrived in Columbia from Charleston around 1 a.m., Wednesday, after spending about six hours in stop-and-go traffic on Interstate 26.

Hawkins, a nurse, said her employer Vibra Hospital of Charleston, sent her to accompany patients that have been transferred to Continued Care at Palmetto Health Baptist Hospital in Columbia.

Hawkins said she struggled to find a hotel through the weekend because too many rooms are already booked for the USC-Georgia football game.

Hawkins’ pregnant daughter, Meghan McGill, joined her later at the Blue Marlin with her two children Alexander, 10, and Hailey, 9.

McGill, of the Summerville area, said she took I-26 once all the lanes were converted to westbound lanes, and it took her about two hours to make it to Columbia.

“I’ve only got four weeks left,” McGill said of her pregnancy. “I want to be close to a hospital.”

Joe and Kayla Penta met their friends Derek King and Callie Campbell when they adopted puppies from the same litter. On Wednesday, the Pentas are hosting the couple, who are leaving their North Charleston home in anticipation of Hurricane Matthew.

They plan to stay in for a quiet dinner before Derek and Callie drive on to Asheville. But Joe Penta, area manager for Marco’s Pizza, said he expects a lot of business for Columbia’s bars and restaurants.

“We’re already busier than we would be,” he said at about 2 p.m. Wednesday at the chain’s Rosewood Drive store. “There are going to be a lot of people out doing things, trying to put their worries aside.”

There also are going to be some official guests.

The University of South Carolina will host about 50 students and 10 staffers from the College of Charleston and two more students from the Medical University of South Carolina, a spokesman said on Wednesday.

They will be staying at USC’s Capstone dorm and will have access to dining halls and other amenities.

“We’re going to have some folks from student government who going to greet them,” said USC spokesman Jeff Stensland. “And we’re talking about some other things we can do for them, but haven’t settled on anything yet.”

Columbia’s movie houses are almost a natural draw for locals and their out-of-town guests.

The Nickelodeon Theatre, weather permitting, will open two popular films on Friday, according to Kristin Morris, marketing manager: “The Birth of a Nation,” depicting the efforts of a literate slave, Nat Turner, to lead a revolt, and the documentary, “Cameraperson,” the film memoir of world photographer Kirsten Johnson.

“If there is bad weather, people do want to go to the movies,” Morris said. “As long as we are open and we’ve got power, I would anticipate that we would probably see some crowds.”

Some people see the stall from the weather as a prime opportunity to visit the local zoo. By 2:30 Wednesday afternoon, 3,000 guests had gone through the turnstiles at Riverbanks Zoo, according to Susan O’Cain, the zoo’s public relations manager.

The normal expected draw for a day in the middle of the week in October is about 1,000 visitors, O’Cain said.

Riverbanks Zoo, widely acclaimed as the most popular tourist attraction in South Carolina, fielded numerous inquiries early Wednesday via Facebook asking if the park would be open, O’Cain said.

Riverbanks Zoo normal operating hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. The park will remain open as long as weather permits, O’Cain said.

Andrew Peach, Columbiana Centre general manager, said the Harbison mall is a lot busier. “I attribute that to school being out as well as the additional traffic from the evacuations along the coast. We are grateful people are coming to visit us, but are also keeping everyone that is being affected by this hurricane in our thoughts and prayers.”

Pets also occupy a high place on the list when it comes to new arrivals in town.

At Shandon-Wood Animal Clinic near Melrose Heights, calls were coming in from the coast on Wednesday in search of boarding space. “We’re fully booked for large breed dogs,” said Mary Tresca Hoefer, which is an abnormality for a non-holiday week, she said.

The same held true at Elam Animal Hospital on Forest Drive. “Our boarding is very filled up,” said Chelsea Williams. “We’re a full house this weekend.”

State staffers Roddie Burris, Cynthia Roldan and Avery Wilks contributed.

SHELTERS GETTING READY

Red Cross volunteers were busy Wednesday preparing the gymnasium at Dent Middle School to house Lowcountry residents displaced by Hurricane Matthew.

His team is ready to handle whatever comes, shelter manager William Forkner said.

“We have to be flexible,” he said. “I hope it’s nice and quiet – it means people are safe and secure wherever they are at.”

Dent, on the north edge of Forest Acres, was one of two Columbia area schools designated as shelters. The other is White Knoll High School in Red Bank

Pets are not allowed at shelters run by the Red Cross, such as White Knoll and Dent. So Lexington County officials are referring families with pets either to local hotels or to kennels that can board the animals.

At Dent, located at Trenholm Road and Decker Boulevard, people with pets will be directed to Pets Inc., an animal shelter and adoption organization in West Columbia.

Pets Inc. director Sammy Wullmer said the facility can take about 30 animals. But Pets Inc. has a network of volunteers willing to foster animals temporarily as well as other facilities that might help.

Pets Inc. personnel will answer phone requests at (803) 739-9333 between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily. After hours requests will go to voice mail or pet owners also may submit requests through info@petsinc.org.

Wednesday evening, state emergency officials released a list of shelters open statewide.

Tim Flach and Clif LeBlanc

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