Thousands of seaside residents and Labor Day vacationers fled South Carolina’s coast Monday after Gov. Henry McMaster ordered an evacuation he said would protect the public from Hurricane Dorian, a powerful and dangerous storm churning slowly toward the Palmetto State.
“We’d rather be safe than sorry,” McMaster said at a news conference, explaining there was no way to tell as of Monday afternoon whether Hurricane Dorian will veer out to sea or strike inland.
“We do not want to gamble with a single life in South Carolina,” McMaster said. “We do not gamble with lives.”
As McMaster spoke, thousands of state law enforcement officials, emergency workers and National Guard soldiers and airmen were getting ready to head to coastal areas, or were there already, to handle the evacuation and respond to hurricane emergencies, which could include dangerous storm surges, flooding and tree-uprooting winds,
Traffic was steady along the 96 miles of Interstate 26 linking Charleston and Columbia, with cars using both the eastbound and westbound lanes of the freeway to leave the coast, officials reported. The state reversed eastbound lanes of I-26 toward Charleston to make the westward evacuation easier for motorists. All four I-26 lanes were open to westbound traffic between Charleston and Columbia.
At Monday’s news conference, officials said traffic also had been steady on highways leaving Hilton Head Island and Myrtle Beach, two of South Carolina’s largest beach resorts. Higher than normal traffic volumes were reported, state transportation Secretary Christy Hall said.
During the early hours of the evacuation, cars carrying at least 10,000 people per hour had left the Charleston area on Interstate 26 toward Columbia, Hall said. Officials said they actually reversed the lanes 90 minutes earlier than they had planned after seeing traffic becoming heavy on I-26, likely because of the normal Labor Day holiday exodus.
“It was definitely needed,’’ Hall said. “There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that if we had not implemented this reversal, we would have gridlock on I-26.’’
After the news conference, Hall told The State the Department of Transportation determines when to recommend lane reversals by taking into account real-time traffic counts from counters embedded in I-26 concrete, as well information from the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism concerning the occupancy rates of hotels in the Charleston area.
“It’s data-driven,” Hall said. “The key with traffic is to keep it moving.”
Despite some grumbling from coastal residents about evacuating, McMaster urged anyone who has not left to get away from the coast.
“We don’t want to be telling anybody ‘we told you so,’ ‘’ the governor said.
Schools and state government offices in the eight coastal counties are closed because of the impending storm. Those eight counties where schools and government offices are to close Tuesday are: Jasper, Beaufort, Colleton, Dorchester, Berkeley, Charleston, Georgetown and Horry.
The governor said he would not order any other schools to close on Tuesday.
This week’s evacuation marked the third time in three years that India Robbins had been told to leave the coast because of a major storm.
But this time, the James Island resident took more than the usual possessions with her. Robbins packed her wedding dress to make sure it wasn’t ruined by the hurricane. She is getting married in about a month.
“The dress shop sent me a text yesterday that said ‘Come get your wedding dress, if you can, to keep it safe,’’ said Robbins, a 26-year-old graduate student who grew up in Spartanburg. “The dress shop is right downtown, close to the water. So I’m bringing my wedding dress, my fiance and our cat.’’
Officials said the traffic exodus had gone smoothly, but there were reports that lanes on one side of the I-26 median were less crowded than others. In some cases, cars reportedly cut across the median to get to the less traveled lanes of traffic headed out of Charleston.
Although tens of thousands of people joined Monday’s exodus from South Carolina’s coast, State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel warned that some 370 officers from SLED and other state agencies will be assisting local law enforcement to patrol the emptied-out neighborhoods and businesses.
“If there are individuals out there that choose to take advantage of this situation that ... steal from those who have left their homes for personal safety, you will be arrested and you will go to jail, ” Keel said.
Officials said the traffic exodus had gone smoothly, although there were reports that some lanes on one side of the I-26 median were less crowded than others. In some cases, cars reportedly cut across the median to get to the less traveled lanes of traffic headed out of Charleston.
Dorian’s eye isn’t expected to hit the state, but high winds and flooding are something to be concerned about, forecasters say. The storm, which smashed the Bahamas on its way toward the U.S. mainland, is expected to follow the Florida coast and be off of South Carolina by late Wednesday night and Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.
When Dorian arrives, it is expected to have dropped from a Category 5 to a Category 2 hurricane, a storm that still carries sustained winds of 96 to 110 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Such winds can easily topple trees and cause power outages. The highest winds and flooding are expected east of Interstate 95, with potentially life-threatening storm surges along the beaches.
A key question is how close the storm comes to land along the coast, a region of South Carolina battered every year since 2015 by hurricanes and a historic flood.
John Quagliariello, a National Weather Service forecaster, said rainfall of six to 10 inches could cause flash flooding. A turn toward land would bring bigger impacts to South Carolina, he said.
“We are not expecting landfall in South Carolina on the current forecast track; however, it wouldn’t take much of a shift to the left to bring it very close,’’ he said, noting that the mid-day forecast said the storm will be about 50 miles offshore.
McMaster’s evacuation order told residents along much of the coast to leave by noon Monday, a time vacationers typically leave South Carolina after the Labor Day weekend winds down. The Labor Day traffic already was heavy, he said.
Officials said they have been assured by energy companies that enough gasoline is on hand to supply all the people who want to fill their cars.
In Beaufort, Mayor Billy Keyserling said some people were not rushing to leave, in part because they are concerned about how soon they could return to their homes after the storm. Keyserling said there also had been some initial concerns about the evacuation out of nearby Hilton Head Island.
Keyserling said the governor’s order caught him by surprise Sunday, but he understands the difficulty in making evacuation decisions. He said it’s better to be safe than risk lives. Keyserling also noted that with the earth’s changing climate, more powerful storms are becoming a grim reality.
“A number of people are second-guessing the governor,’’ Keyserling told The State. “The thing I see is anything 50 miles off our coast, to say nothing of a hit, could give us up to 100 mile (per hour) winds. We’ve already got (high) King tides. The governor can’t win on evacuation.’’
“You always are taking a (political) risk because people hate to leave their homes and fear they won’t get back in.’’
McMaster and Hall said staying on the coast is a bad idea with a dangerous storm approaching. McMaster said his office took the proper action in ordering an evacuation Monday, instead of waiting.
“Not too early, not too late, we did it just right,’’ McMaster said.
Monday’s press conference, at the State Emergency Management Division on a high hill outside Columbia, included more than a dozen chiefs of agencies involved in carrying out evacuation, law enforcement, possible rescue and other hurricane-related activities.
Other highlights of Monday’s press conference:
▪ State Department of Public Service director Leroy Smith said 2,785 law officers and National Guard men and women were already deployed.
▪ On Monday afternoon, 13 inland shelters that can hold 9,385 people had been opened, but by shortly after 1 p.m.., only about 15 people were in those shelters, said state Department of Social Services director Michael Leach. DSS is working with the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and the Department of Health and Environmental Control to coordinate staffing, medical and food supplies to shelters.
▪ South Carolina is assembling teams for search and rescue after the storm, should the need arise, according to the S.C. Department Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which oversees the fire departments from which those teams would mostly come. Those teams include swift water rescue boats and crews.
▪ State Emergency Management Division Director Kim Stinson said as of Monday afternoon, there were 16 county operation centers open to coordinate local responses to storm conditions., including evacuations and shelters. His agency stands ready to “transport food and water as required” to stricken areas, Stinson said.
Also, Stinson said, 75 buses have been stationed in Orangeburg along the I-26 corridor to assist in emergency evacuations if needed.
▪ State National Guard Maj. Gen. Van McCarty said 1,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen, including 50 military police, have been activated and will be in the field with law enforcement officers. National Guard soldiers have no arrest powers but will be an extra person to beef up law enforcement teams, McCarty said after the news conference.
McMaster said the state has faced five hurricanes in the last five years and those experiences have taught officials much.
“Every hurricane is different but the main lesson we always learn is be prepared,” McMaster said.