Weather News

‘We can’t risk it’: Coastal residents flee, inland communities prep as Dorian arrives

Irene Soto wanted to stay at her Hilton Head Island home.

She had spent days checking between the Weather Channel and The Island Packet’s website for updates on Hurricane Dorian hoping for news that the now Category 3 storm eventually would shift east and away from her Squire Pope mobile home.

Those assurances never came.

Gov. Henry McMaster and other state officials again Wednesday urged coastal South Carolinians to take the warnings seriously and evacuate, saying that state emergency crews might not be able to save them if they decide to stay put and flood waters rise.

“If you are still in the evacuation zone, you still have time to get out,” McMaster said at the state’s emergency headquarters, adding that reversed eastbound lanes on Interstate 26 were going back to normal. “But time to get out is running out.”

Some 360,000 of about 830,000 coastal residents and tourists had evacuated the coast as of Wednesday morning.

Soto joined them, deciding to leave before the storm was set to arrive that afternoon.

She spent most of that morning nailing plywood boards bought from the Bluffton Home Depot to the windows of her home.

“I’m nervous,” the 29-year-old medical assistant said as she rounded up her two daughters — Jiselle, 6, and Yanely, 5 — and three pit bulls for the roughly three-hour drive to Richburg, where the family reserved a hotel room.

“It’s hard to know when we’ll be back. But we can’t risk it.”

Surfing, mimosas ahead of storm

As late as mid-afternoon Wednesday, that immediacy had not yet struck some hanging out in Myrtle Beach, a vacation spot on the state’s northern coastline.

There, surfers were taking advantage of big waves, even as storm clouds loomed overhead and red flags dotted the coast warning swimmers of dangerous conditions out in the water, The Sun News reported.

Farther south, Calvin Detwiler, who moved to Bluffton this year, was swept down near Singleton Beach on Hilton Head Island after he took a dip in the surging ocean Wednesday. He escaped the ocean without injury.

Detwiler said despite the danger, he couldn’t resist taking his boogie board into the sea so he could ride waves in his first hurricane.

“It’s good waves right now,” Detwiler said. “Usually you have two to three footers but you’re getting six footers out there now.’‘

South of Myrtle Beach in Georgetown County, officials there warned residents to evacuate.

And in Charleston County, McMaster told reporters Wednesday the Holy City was experiencing “king tide,” flooding parts of the city.

Down the road in West Ashley, mimosas were a popular cocktail choice for diners early Wednesday in Ms. Rose’s restaurant.

In the world outside the restaurant, however, Charleston County officials were bracing for Hurricane Dorian.

”People are definitely in final preparation mode and getting ready to respond mode,” spokesman Shawn Smetana told The State.

Smetana said most residents appear to have respected the evacuation orders, and now flooding is the prominent concern.

“When you’re talking about storm surge and heavy rainfall, you start to worry,” Smetana said. “We do not want people going out in the weather or people driving through flooded streets.”

Amanee Neirouz, operations manager at Ms. Rose’s told The State by phone the restaurant planned to close Wednesday afternoon so staff could head home.

“We try to stay open as long as we can if we have staff and it’s safe. We had a great turnout for breakfast. A lot of people have been coming in to have a mimosa and a sandwich. We did a lot of mimosas this morning.”

Flash flooding expected

State emergency officials this week warned coastal residents to evacuate, concerned major flooding will cause problems into Thursday. All coastal counties in South Carolina were under a hurricane warning as of Wednesday, and also storm surge and flash flood warnings.

By late Wednesday, Dorian had strengthened as it moved through Florida and its eye sat east of the southeastern Georgia coast.

The storm has been blamed for at least 20 deaths in the Bahamas, the Associated Press reported,and one in North Carolina.

“It’s a large storm and will only be increasing in size as it passes off the South Carolina coast,” said National Weather Service meteorologist John Quagliariello. “Just to give you an idea, outside of the center of the storm, hurricane force winds are expected to extend about 50 miles from the center of the storm and tropical storm force winds over 100 miles from the center of the storm.”

In the Midlands, meteorologists said Wednesday Dorian was still on track to drop heavy rain and tropical force winds into some parts. Tornado sightings are possible, the National Weather Service said.

Late Wednesday, as the storm strengthened slightly, Midlands school districts began announcing closures for Thursday.

Tropical storm winds are most likely to impact the eastern Midlands, causing downed trees, power lines, closed roads and outages. Given its proximity to the evacuation route from the coast, Midlands counties helped prepare for evacuees and opened shelters.

For instance, Orangeburg County closed its schools and offices, opening shelters at Lake Marion High School and Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School. Bamberg and Florence counties — which also closed schools — opened shelters at Voorhees College and South Florence High School, respectively. More shelters can be found at the state’s emergency management division website.

“I think we’ll see a lot of damage along the beaches and to the coastline due to the pounding waves,” Quagliariello said. “We could see a lot of downed trees due to the strong winds, especially east of I-95.”

But while meteorologists anticipate heavy rain and rising rivers, Quagliariello said officials are not expecting flooding similar to 2016.

“One difference, though, is with (Hurricane) Matthew there was a lot more rain into North Carolina into the headwaters of the Waccamaw and Pee Dee, and that resulted in the river flooding that occurred a week or two after the storm moved by,” he said.

“While there could be minor to moderate flooding, we’re not expecting that catastrophic-type flooding that we saw with Matthew.”

Some stayed, some fled

The urgency of McMaster’s several evacuation warnings appeared to stop tourist destinations in the state in its tracks.

In Hilton Head, few cars were on the road. Shopping centers, gas stations and fast food joints were desolate.

A few cars had been left in the parking lots of big box stores, seemingly strategically parked away from trees that could fall.

Some stores have been boarded up with plywood with sandbags piled at their doors, including a boarded-up Enmarket on Thompson Street, where the only sign of life was a house speaker system that was still playing ‘90s music.

And Beaufort County was put under a curfew, running through 6 a.m. Thursday and again from 10 p.m. Thursday until 6 a.m. Friday.

Hilton Head residents said Wednesday they were well aware of McMaster’s evacuation order but had reasons to stick around.

Mikki Rolain and her husband, Jeff Rolain, were lounging on the patio of her restaurant Wednesday morning, sheltered from a light rain under a large umbrella. She said they were staying behind so they could make immediate repairs to their restaurant, Mikki’s Cafe, if a tree falls onto the roof. They will pass the time with a stack of old movies, Jenga and a deck of cards.

Rolain said she wasn’t worried for her safety.

But, she said, she is concerned about the tall pines surrounding her restaurant, and the havoc heavy rains could cause if her cafe’s roof is damaged. She added that her friends were skeptical of the governor’s evacuation order after the island was evacuated last year for a storm that ultimately brought minimal damage.

“This year, I don’t think a lot of people left because of what happened last year,” she said. “It’s almost like crying wolf.”

It’s prudent to evacuate early, said Susan Cutter, a geography professor at the University of South Carolina.

“It takes time to get people away from the coast. It takes time to get them off of the barrier islands and onto the state’s transportation network,” said Cutter, who researches natural disasters.

“It takes time for people to make the decision to actually evacuate and to get their stuff together and to actually leave.”

One state senator praised the governor for his handling of the storm.

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, called McMaster one of the most “hands-on governors” he’s seen in times of crisis.

Kimpson was one of a handful of coastal-area lawmakers to receive a call from the governor. He missed it, though, only to get a text.

“He was just checking in, said in the text if I need him I could give him a buzz,” Kimpson said. “I appreciate that. We politically disagree on many things, but since I’ve been in office, he’s been one of the most hands-on governors, particularly in times of crisis.”

Kimpson, who evacuated Charleston and came to Columbia, told The State Wednesday he’s hopeful more residents evacuate.

Hal Mackin was among those who didn’t evacuate Monday. But by Wednesday, Mackin said he had changed his mind.

A resident of the South Forest Beach area, Mackin said people on Hilton Head were upset about the order Sunday night, feeling it was too soon. But, he added, he wasn’t sticking around after surveying the rising tide at Coligny Beach about mid-day Wednesday.

“I don’t want to be without electric for three or four days, trees down and the roads flooded.”

As Dorian bore down on the S.C. coast, native islander Alex Brown Jr. drove to Harbour Town to check on two of his souvenir shops.

One of the lighthouse-shaped shops was boarded up with plywood planks. The other already was retrofitted with hurricane-resistant glass. Decades of living on Hilton Head Island have resigned Brown to what will likely happen over the next few days.

Dorian’s storm surge will flood at least one of his shops, which are a baseball’s toss away from the Atlantic Ocean.

Choppy waves were already lapping over the Harbour Town pier just before Wednesday afternoon’s high tide, as strong gusts whipped rain into the faces of passersby. Brown said he knows he will have to pay contractors to remove his shop’s hardwood floors, dry them out and clean the store to prevent a mold outbreak.

The shops could be out of business a month, he said. That happened in 2017 during Hurricane Irma.

If Dorian reaches (Hurricane) Matthew levels, Brown said he could be out of commission until February.

Brown plans to ride out the storm at his home in the island’s Chaplin area, where his family has lived for generations.

“Not many people can trace their heritage to a particular place, and we can,” he said. “It’s worth a hurricane every now and then.”

Reporters Tom Barton and Travis Bland contributed to this report.

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.
Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.