Hurricane Matthew bore down on the South Carolina coast Friday, becoming a major threat to the state and prompting urgent warnings for people to leave seaside communities before the powerful storm arrives.
The hurricane at one point looked as if it would spare South Carolina substantial damage, but the forecast changed as Matthew crossed the Bahamas and approached the Florida coast.
Forecasts on Friday showed the storm, packing sustained winds of up to 120 mph, coming dangerously close to Hilton Head Island, Edisto Beach and Charleston on Saturday, then tracking off the coast toward the Carolinas border before gradually moving offshore. A landfall in South Carolina is possible.
According to the National Weather Service, the latest forecast “brings the storm within 15 miles of Charleston Harbor around 8 a.m. Saturday.”
Hurricane warnings extended Friday along much of the state’s entire coast, meaning that hurricane conditions are expected in the area within 36 hours.
An expansive storm that has been building for weeks, Matthew could be carrying winds of at least 110 mph when it reaches the Hilton Head Island area, according to the National Weather Service.
South Carolina faces danger beginning Saturday from high winds, crashing seas and heavy rain. Some beachfront homes could be wiped out.
Forecasters said potentially deadly storm surges south of Charleston might be more substantial than the surges those areas experienced during Hurricane Hugo, the 1989 storm that leveled parts of the South Carolina coast.
The highest surges could occur at Hilton Head Island, Hunting Island, Folly Beach, Isle of Palms and Edisto Beach. Roads could become impassable, officials said.
“Right now, we are looking at the potential for disastrous and life-threatening storm surge inundation becoming more likely for the southern coast of South Carolina,’’ said John Quagliariello, a meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Columbia.
Gov. Nikki Haley repeated her cry for people to evacuate, rather than try to ride the storm out this weekend.
“This is the time we absolutely need you to go out,’’ Haley said during an evening news conference. “When we are looking at storm surges that surpass Hugo, you know it is a problem.’’
Haley said thousands of people remained on the state’s central and southern coast, despite evacuation orders. She said people who stay not only are in danger, but may not have access to supplies, such as gasoline, or have electricity as the storm worsens.
Up to 14 inches of rain are expected along parts of the coast, and homes along the immediate beachfront are vulnerable, forecasters said. Winds are expected to down trees and cause widespread power outages.
While some residents weren’t leaving, many people heeded Haley’s call Wednesday to evacuate.
By Thursday evening, an estimated 280,000 people had evacuated, most of them from the Charleston and Hilton Head Island-Beaufort areas, state officials said. Haley ordered evacuations Thursday on the remainder of the coast, near Myrtle Beach and Georgetown, as well as parts of Jasper and Colleton counties. All told, the state hopes up to 500,000 people will evacuate to interior parts of South Carolina.
Many people fleeing the storm were headed to Columbia and destinations in other states, hoping to find hotel rooms. The state reversed the lanes on many major highways leaving the coast to help people get out more easily, although officials planned to end some of the reversals Friday.
Haley said rooms in many of the state’s interior cities were booked, as were those in Asheville, N.C. The state has opened 64 shelters in interior cities for those who can’t find a place to stay or who can’t afford one.
Some coastal medical facilities also were closing. Beaufort Memorial Hospital was evacuating patients because of the storm’s threat, according to the Governor’s office.
The storm continued to cause disruptions to daily life in South Carolina, and its threat sparked offers of help from the federal government.
President Barack Obama has declared a state of emergency in South Carolina. That means federal aid can help state and local responders. The order also authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief.
Meanwhile, state inmates continued to fill sandbags for coastal residents in an effort to protect expensive beachfront homes and houses along rivers or creeks, even as hospitals and nursing homes evacuated. The state expects to have as many as 50,000 sandbags available Friday.
In Columbia – where four to six inches of rain are expected from Friday night through Saturday night – the University of South Carolina postponed its football game with the University of Georgia until Sunday afternoon.
USC, which canceled classes this week, was hosting 50 students from the College of Charleston who left the Lowcountry this week. Clemson, in the state’s northwest corner, was housing 47 students from Coastal Carolina University.
Weather forecasters said the state is right to prepare for problems.
Ken Aucoin, a meteorologist with Richland County, said Matthew is a particularly large and potent hurricane. One computer model used by the National Hurricane Center to develop storm forecast tracks shows extensive rainfall over most of the coast Saturday, with heavy rain still lingering in the North Myrtle Beach area and Pee Dee region Sunday.
Aucoin said Hurricane Matthew has become so wide that it will cause more rain in the Columbia area than first expected.
Columbia is more than 100 miles from the ocean and forecasts earlier this week showed the city getting 1 to 2 inches of rain. The city, which is packed with evacuees, now can expect 4 to 6 inches of rain from late Friday to Saturday night, he said. Aucoin said the city should be able to absorb the rain.
Tim Kana, a coastal geologist and adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina, said coastal property owners should pay particular attention.
Hurricane Matthew will create large waves for days that will eat away beaches and break directly onto some houses, he said. Sand could cover nearby roads, he said. At the peak of the storm, waves could reach 17 feet on beaches near Charleston; the normal heights are three to four feet, he said
Edisto Beach, Pawleys Island, Folly Beach and Garden City are particularly vulnerable, said Kana, whose company provides beach renourishment services.
“Our beaches will have to absorb more big waves than would be typical during most hurricanes,’’ Kana said.
After moving away from the immediate South Carolina coast, the storm will linger farther out in the ocean, which Kana said should keep waves stirred up through early next week. Matthew also could return late next week because the storm is moving in a circular pattern. That would put the storm back along the Florida coast again, according to a National Hurricane Center forecast.
That could happen as another storm, Hurricane Nicole, churns farther out in the Atlantic Ocean. The combination of Nicole and a weather system over the United States that isn’t as strong as expected could be contributing factors in pushing Hurricane Matthew toward South Carolina, Aucoin said this week.
Staff writers Cassie Cope, Avery Wilks and Jeff Kidd contributed to this story.
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