S.C. leaders appeared to breathe a collective sigh of relief Saturday, as Hurricane Irma’s projected track shifted even farther west toward western Georgia.
Still, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster warned of storm surges, as high as 6 feet, along the southern S.C. coast and again urged residents of barrier islands in three coastal counties to leave.
Residents of those eight islands – home to more than 44,400 – evacuated smoothly on Saturday, the governor said at a 2 p.m. press conference.
Fewer than 50 evacuees are staying in the state’s three open shelters, officials said.
Traffic congestion has eased on S.C. interstates, down to 15 percent above the normal load. And brand-name gas stations have a steady supply of fuel, McMaster said.
With threat to South Carolina waning, McMaster announced an agreement with Florida Gov. Rick Scott to send first responders to the Sunshine State, which sits firmly in the powerful storm’s crosshairs.
“The hurricane has cooperated some, so far,” McMaster said.
By 11 a.m. Friday, Irma had been downgraded to a Category 3 storm, with maximum sustained winds of roughly 125 mph. It is expected to strengthen before hitting Florida, forecasters say.
A storm surge watch is in effect from Isle of Palms to the state’s southern border.
Meteorologists warned the surges could flood low-lying coastal areas, especially during high tide, damaging docks and piers and eroding beaches.
“The storm surge is not something to be taken lightly,” McMaster said. “We worry about that, and that’s one reason we’re here.
The Columbia area is unlikely to experience hurricane-force winds but could see tornadoes Monday, forecasters said around midday Saturday.
If Irma follows its current track, Midlands residents could face up to 7 inches of rain and wind gusts as strong as 50 mph, experts said. Winds could be as strong as 60 mph farther south and west of Columbia.
However, if the storm moves west into the Gulf of Mexico before spinning into Georgia, it could strengthen and hit the Midlands harder. That’s the storm’s “worst-case scenario” for central South Carolina, experts said.
Columbia is most likely to experience the storm’s effects throughout the day and night Monday, although tropical storm-force winds are possible starting Sunday night.
The areas south and west of Interstate 26 remain at the greatest risk in the Midlands for tropical storm-force winds and tornadoes, forecasters said.
The southernmost stretch of the S.C. coast remains under a hurricane watch, while the Charleston area is under a tropical storm watch.
McMaster said he could not estimate when barrier island residents will be given the all-clear to return to their homes.
Those islands are:
▪ Edisto Beach in Colleton County;
▪ Hilton Head Island, Harbour Island, Hunting Island, Dafuskie Island and Fripp Island in Beaufort County;
▪ And Knowles Island and Tullifini Island in Jasper County.
More than 3,400 law enforcement agents and guardsmen are on duty as Irma approaches, McMaster said.