Mark Washburn

With eerie calm, Charleston hunkers down in face of historic storm

Two women explore the unusually vacant downtown of Charleston, which is quiet in the face of Hurricane Matthew.
Two women explore the unusually vacant downtown of Charleston, which is quiet in the face of Hurricane Matthew.

Charleston is a ghost town, under a state of emergency, its famed vitality drained away and replaced by widespread anxiety of an onrushing calamity.

With Hurricane Matthew – a savage Category 4 maelstrom that left more than 100 dead in the Caribbean – creeping up the coast, Charleston has retreated behind shuttered doors and plywood sheets, its signature hospitality replaced by an unwelcome mat.

Streets are all but vacant; commerce has been replaced by an eerie calm. Matthew is expected to lash the Carolinas coast on Saturday, but authorities said the storm seems to be picking up its pace.

Nearly 300,000 people had evacuated South Carolina’s Low Country by nightfall Thursday, said Gov. Nikki Haley, and she called on those remaining to get out as soon as possible.

“I am begging you at this point,” she said, “to understand the seriousness of this storm.”

Hotel rooms in the upstate are largely filled, she said, and suggested people evacuate to Charlotte.

Reversal ending

Lanes were reversed on Interstate 26, opening a wide, 100-mile evacuation route from the coast to Columbia. Haley said the eastbound lanes would probably revert to their normal flow sometime Friday.

Thick, battleship-gray clouds shrouded Charleston Thursday but only a gentle breeze rustled the state’s trademark Palmetto palms.

“It’s truly the calm before the storm,” said Julie Mansfield, a pediatric physician assistant, enjoying the afternoon in her hometown of Mount Pleasant across the Cooper river from Charleston.

She won’t be joining the exodus. She was a high school student in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo made its mark as one of the worst storms to ravage the Carolinas, and she didn’t leave then.

“Hugo was scary,” she said, but she’s a native of the region and would rather ride out the storm than sit far inland and wonder what was happening to her home.

Charleston’s tourist district was largely deserted. Gift shops, restaurants, museums and the city’s popular aquarium were all closed. Parking spaces were plentiful.

At the Griffon, ranked by Southern Living as one of the South’s best bars, a sign hung on the door saying it would be closed for the duration.

“Blame Hurricane Matthew,” it said. And, “Go Red Sox!”

Plywood rising

At the Vendue Hotel, Rod Gerber was part of a crew boarding up windows. He’d spent $15,000 earlier in the day on plywood. “Lowe’s was crazy,” he said.

Pietro Giardini, the Vendue’s general manager, said the hotel typically has upwards of 150 guests a night this time of year. Most who had reservations canceled on their own, he said; a few had to be dis-invited.

It is his first big storm – he’s only been at the upscale hotel for nine years. But he expects the Vendue will persevere. It is in a building dating to the mid-1700s.

“We’ve been through thick and thin,” he said.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs