S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster did not mince words Thursday, delivering a dire message to coastal residents who have chosen to remain in their homes despite repeated warnings to leave as Hurricane Florence moved toward the state.
“If you’re going to leave ... you should leave now because time is running out,” McMaster said. “Once these winds start blowing at that tropical-storm rate, it will be virtually impossible for the rescuers to get in to rescue you.”
More than 421,000 South Carolinians already have evacuated from the coast, McMaster said.
Of those who left, more than 4,000 had sought housing at emergency shelters across the state. Sixty-one shelters have opened in South Carolina — 12 designated for evacuees with special medical needs — able to accommodate more than 31,000 additional people.
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Only two of the 61 shelters were at capacity Thursday.
Meanwhile, lane reversals on U.S. 501 in the Grand Strand ended at noon Thursday and reversals on I-26 ended Thursday night, allowing state police and transportation workers to get to safety before the storm hits.
A now-weakened Category 2 storm, Hurricane Florence still is expected to be “extremely dangerous” and “life threatening,” the National Hurricane Center said. The storm packs winds in the 110 mph range.
State officials and the National Weather Service warned the storm’s weakening only relates to wind speed, not the storm surges or flooding that will accompany the hurricane.
“We’re seeing on social media, we’re seeing comments and calls coming into our hotline that people are saying, ‘Oh, it’s only a Cat 2.’ Well, only a Cat 2 has winds of up to 96 to 110 mph,” Derrec Becker, spokesman for the S.C. Emergency Management Division told The State on Thursday. “It can still kill you. It can still bring a massive storm surge ashore.”
The 400-mile wide storm is expected to start slamming the N.C. coast sometime Thursday night or early Friday, then weaken to a tropical storm as it drifts into South Carolina, said John Quagliariello, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Columbia.
Tropical storm-force winds will move into the Pee Dee and eastern Midlands on Friday, with strong winds expected in the central Midlands late Friday and western Midlands early Saturday, the Weather Service said. The storm also will drop significant rainfall — from 15-20 inches on the Grand Strand to 4-10 inches in the Midlands.
McMaster also warned of possible landslides in the Upstate, portions of which could get 10 inches of rain over the weekend.
For the Columbia area, state and city officials warned of the likelihood of flash flooding. Isolated tornadoes also are possible. A flash-flood watch has been issued for the Columbia area starting early Friday through late Sunday, the Weather Service reported.
McMaster and state officials urged residents eager to return home after the hurricane to be patient, stressing Florence will be a long-term event. River flooding, power outages and road closures likely will extend well into next week.
“It’s going to be a lot of wind. A lot of rain,” said S.C. National Guard Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston. “While that rain is still coming down for a couple of days, one to two days later you’re going to have stuff coming from North Carolina and things coming in from the Upstate. So, just because the rain starts letting up, don’t assume everything’s good and you can go back to your house in some low-lying area, and then be surprised by the river coming up.”
National Guard soldiers from the state, North Carolina and Virginia are mobilizing to prepare for hurricane recovery efforts.
The U.S. Naval Forces North Command also has deployed ships off the S.C. coast for recovery and rescue efforts once the hurricane passes, said Lt. Cmdr. Brian Wierzbicki, with U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va.
“We’ve seen fatalities and deaths from tropical storms, from Category 1 storms and from Category 2 storms,” SCEMD’s Becker said.
“This is going to be a bad, bad situation.”
▪421,000+ residents have evacuated the state’s coastal area
▪ 2,200+ South Carolinians have been evacuated from 113 health care facilities along the coast
▪ 750 search-and-rescue personnel from South Carolina and other states are ready to respond
▪ 241 dams had been assessed as of noon Thursday
▪ 7 S.C. hospitals have closed