South Carolina’s largest evacuation in at least 17 years began Wednesday afternoon, as hundreds of thousands of people began moving inland to escape approaching Hurricane Matthew.
The storm’s future path continues to be clouded in uncertainty, but the Wednesday evening forecast from the National Hurricane Center showed Matthew pulling away from the coast before reaching North Carolina.
The altered storm track greatly lessens the possible impact of Hurricane Matthew on the immediate Charlotte area, after earlier forecasts of gusty winds and up to 4 inches of rain in the region.
“If this forecast verifies, it would result in a huge improvement of weather conditions for the N.C. coastline,” WBTV meteorologist Eric Thomas wrote in his blog. “But before we all start high-fiving each other, it is important to understand that numerous computer projections continue to insist that Hurricane Matthew will take a path much closer to the N.C. coastline.”
Hurricane watches and warnings stretch from Florida up along the Georgia coast, and they could be extended Thursday morning into South Carolina.
Late Wednesday evening, the hurricane had top sustained winds of 115 mph and was in the central Bahamas. Forecasters said they expect Matthew to intensify overnight.
The storm is forecast to move northwest Thursday through the Bahamas, and then northward Friday up the Florida coast, although the National Hurricane Center said Matthew could make landfall at any time in the Sunshine State.
After that, it is expected to continue moving slowly northward and approach the Charleston area by Saturday afternoon. At that point, Matthew is forecast to have top sustained winds of 105 mph.
The National Hurricane Center predicts Matthew will curve eastward from the S.C. coast Saturday afternoon, but several computer models Wednesday night predicted the storm would continue northward to near the N.C.-S.C. border before turning east.
Not taking any chances, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told residents in coastal counties to leave. Residents and visitors in all or parts of five counties began evacuating Wednesday afternoon. Evacuations are expected to begin Thursday afternoon in Georgetown and Horry counties, including Myrtle Beach.
Troopers turned the eastbound lanes of Interstate 26 from Charleston to Columbia into inland evacuation lanes for the first time ever. By 6 p.m., the first vehicles traveling west in the eastbound lanes reached Columbia.
Haley said at a news conference that nearly every hotel room in the state was booked and suggested that people without a room should stay in public shelters, go to Asheville or Charlotte, or look for a private room through web services such as Airbnb.
Charlotte Motor Speedway has plenty of dry camping spaces with restroom/bathhouse access available to evacuees, speedway spokesman Scott Cooper said. Spaces “are much more affordable than several nights of stay at a hotel,” he said. “Plus, there’s a lot of free entertainment with our Fan Zone through the weekend to take an evacuee’s mind off what may be happening with the storm on the coast.”
S.C. officials said Wednesday night that 32 shelters had been opened in about a dozen counties to house evacuees.
The last hurricane with a similar strength and track to threaten the U.S. East Coast was 1999’s Hurricane Floyd, which caused about $7 billion in damage in the Carolinas, said Jeff Masters, a former hurricane hunter meteorologist and meteorology director of Weather Underground.
“There’s no question that it’s going to have major impacts,” he said. “Is it going to be devastating or just major-damaging?”
That depends: A few degrees difference in the hard-to-forecast track as it hugs the coast could make the difference between a $1 billion storm and a $10 billion one, he said.
In other developments:
▪ Volunteers from the Indian Trail-based Carolina Waterfowl Rescue traveled to Skywatch Bird Rescue near Wilmington on Wednesday to evacuate more than 25 animals, including a pot-bellied pig, goats, swans, pelicans, hawks and owls ahead of expected flooding in that area. Volunteers will make another trip to the area on Thursday.
▪ A large part of the Friday night high school football schedule was altered, with many games being moved to Thursday night. Most games involving Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools will be played Thursday. In addition, South Carolina officials extended the football season one week into November, so teams unable to play this weekend can reschedule games then. State championships were pushed back one week in December.
▪ The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP postponed its state convention scheduled to begin Thursday in Raleigh. A statement from the executive committee cited the potential for heavy rains in the city as well as the impact on the coastal areas where many members live and work. No new date has been set.
▪ GasBuddy announced Wednesday that it has re-activated its Gasoline Availability Tracker at http://tracker.GasBuddy.com/ for motorists in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Some areas of the Southeast are already seeing fuel outages due to the Colonial Pipeline outage last month, and the situation is likely to worsen quickly, the company said.
▪ The National Park Service said its services on Ocracoke Island are being suspended. Visitor services may also be suspended at Hatteras Island, Bodie Island, the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
▪ Evacuations began on Ocracoke Island on Wednesday morning, with ferry service being increased to get residents and visitors off the barrier island.
▪ In South Carolina, 315 school buses from Greenville County headed to Charleston County to evacuate people without cars. Around 1,500 South Carolina National Guard soldiers were helping with traffic and hurricane preparation.
▪ Charleston opened nearly all its parking garages free of charge through the weekend to people who wanted a higher spot in which to park their vehicles.
▪ Dam owners in South Carolina were asked to lower water levels in advance of the storm, which is forecast to dump up to 10 inches of rain in some coastal areas.
Staff writer Joe Marusak, correspondent Steve Lyttle and the Associated Press contributed.