Gov. McMaster orders evacuations as Hurricane Dorian is forecast to hit South Carolina
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster ordered an evacuation for coastal counties including all of Beaufort County during a 6:30 p.m. press conference Sunday, while Hurricane Dorian struck the northern Bahamas as a catastrophic Category 5 storm with winds up to 185 mph.
An evacuation will start on Monday at noon with lane reversals happening at that time on U.S. 278 at the Hilton Head Island bridges.
Starting Monday at noon, one lane will be reversed to create three lanes traveling west on U.S. 278 between the intersections of Spanish Wells Road on the island and Moss Creek Village Drive in Bluffton. This reversal will be approximately 2 miles in length, according to the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.
Tolls on the Cross Island Parkway will be suspended.
School has been ordered to be canceled in Beaufort County for Tuesday, McMaster said. Additionally, schools in Jasper, Colleton, Charleston, Dorchester, Berkeley, Georgetown, and Horry counties are canceled Tuesday.
Medical facilities, assisted living facilities and hospitals are to immediately begin the transportation of patients from the county.
Hurricane Dorian’s pace slowed to 5 mph by 5 p.m. Sunday and was expected to stall over the northwest Bahamas for several hours. The storm is tied with the 1935 Labor Day hurricane as the strongest Atlantic hurricane landfall on record, the National Hurricane Center says.
No Hurricane Center watches or warnings have been issued for the South Carolina coast as of 4 p.m. Sunday.
The storm is expected to arrive off the South Carolina coast early Thursday, bringing with it high winds and potential flooding to Beaufort County, on top of already high tides.
“This storm is very capable of pushing a lot of water, producing a lot of water, a lot of rain,” Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said during a Sunday press conference.
The counties ordered to be evacuated include Colleton Zones A, B; Beaufort Zone A; Jasper Zone A; Charleston Zones A, B, C; Dorchester Zone D; Berkeley Zones B, G; Horry Zone A, and Georgetown Zone A.
Lt. Col. Neil Baxley, director of emergency management in Beaufort County, said Dorian “is promising to be Matthew and worse.”
He said the storm is expected to pass 60 miles off the coast, but warned that the projection has a 150-mile margin of error.
“Sixty miles closer, and it passes over downtown Beaufort,” Baxley said.
Blair Holloway, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Charleston, cautioned that it’s still too soon to focus on a specific path for the storm.
Weather officials expect to know more about the specific track in the next 24 to 36 hours, he said mid-afternoon Sunday.
“It is expected to slow down and then take on more of a northward turn,” Holloway said. “A lot is going to be determined on when it takes that turn. ...
“People should be preparing for a potential landfalling hurricane.”
If Dorian stays on course, however, Holloway said Beaufort County could see between 4 and 10 inches of rain; storm surge could be 3 to 6 feet.
Tropical force winds — more than 40 mph — could reach the area Wednesday morning, Holloway said, and the winds could start peaking Wednesday night.
Hurricane Matthew dumped a total of 14.04 inches on Beaufort County, and its highest wind speed was 88 mph on Hilton Head Island when the storm sat 5 to 10 miles off the coast.
“If we are working off a reasonable worst-case scenario, the track could be very similar to the track that Matthew took,” Holloway said.
Hilton Head Island Mayor John McCann urged residents to help emergency officials by following instructions on any evacuation order that might be issued ahead of the storm.
“When it’s time to evacuate, please evacuate,” he said.
McCann also cautioned residents about the surf.
“It’s very, very rough,” he said.
South Carolina preparations
McMaster declared a state of emergency on Saturday afternoon, enabling state agencies to coordinate in preparing for possible effects from the storm.
Beaufort County is under a state of emergency as of 1 p.m. Sunday.
Baxley said State Highway Patrol and South Carolina’s Army National Guard will be arriving in Beaufort County Sunday.
“This is in preparation,” he said. “We may not do anything, but you have to be ready for it.”
According to the National Weather Service in Charleston, the hurricane could track close to the South Carolina coastline Wednesday and Thursday.
“We urge you to remain flexible as Dorian forecasts could continue to change over the next couple of days,” the weather service posted Sunday morning.
Storm surge could be moderate or heavy for Beaufort County if the storm projections stayed the same, Baxley said. He said some parts of the county, such as Warsaw Island and Gray’s Hill, are already starting to see flooding from Hurricane Dorian on top of king tides.
“Be prepared. It is going to get worse,” Baxley said. “If it got up to the back of your house last night, as we know a couple places in Beaufort County did, tonight it is going to be up against the house, or possibly even starting to enter.”
Hurricane Dorian forecast
For the latest on Hurricane Dorian’s expected impact on Hilton Head Island, Beaufort, Bluffton and surrounding communities, click here.
Beaufort County was under a coastal flooding warning Sunday.
Rip currents were reported Saturday on Hilton Head Island, including a strong one at Mile Marker 9.
A rip current warning remained in effect for the coast Sunday.
What to expect during an evacuation
Lane reversals are sometimes used during mass evacuations — for example, eastbound lanes on U.S. 278 could be converted to westbound lanes — though this has not been necessary in the past three evacuations in Beaufort County.
Though bridges technically will not be closed at any point, they become impassable in 40 mph wind gusts, meaning crossing any bridge in Beaufort County after a storm starts would be incredibly dangerous.
Barricades will be put up and law enforcement officers will be stationed at various locations, such as the bridges onto Hilton Head, before and after the storm passes.
Residents are typically not allowed to re-enter the county or any evacuated area until after an evacuation order has been lifted, and even then some gated communities might caution residents against returning because of specific damage to their neighborhood.
Past evacuations in Beaufort County
HURRICANE MATTHEW (Oct. 8, 2016 — nearly $60 million in damage to Beaufort County)
In 2016, Gov. Nikki Haley ordered evacuations in South Carolina on Oct. 4, four days prior to Hurricane Matthew’s expected arrival in the state and while the storm was still 1,000 miles away, according to previous reporting from The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
The smooth evacuation process in Beaufort County ahead of Matthew was, in part, credited to the governor’s early actions and her consistent and clear communication before, during and after the storm.
The return home, however, was much more complicated.
Beaufort County’s re-entry process was widely criticized for its lack of coordination and management.
A day after the storm hit, many residents found themselves stuck at the county line and barred from returning to their homes. Essential laborers, such as utility and tree-cutting workers, were unable to reach areas that needed help.
“We got almost post-storm riots at these roadblocks,” Sheriff Tanner told the Packet and the Gazette in an interview a month after the storm in 2016. “It was getting that bad.”
HURRICANE IRMA (Sept. 11, 2017 — downed trees, significant flooding in parts of Beaufort County and some power outages)
In 2017, Gov. McMaster called for evacuations of Hilton Head, Fripp, Daufuskie, Harbor and Hunting islands the evening of Sept. 8, just 2 1/2 days ahead of Irma’s projected arrival off the coast of South Carolina.
Though Irma was not expected to make direct landfall in Beaufort County, the potential for flooding was high because, like Dorian, it was expected to bring significant storm surge with it.
Like in Matthew, evacuations went smoothly in Beaufort County.
The evacuation order was lifted Sept. 12, 2017, and less than 24 hours later Beaufort County School District resumed classes, drawing criticism because some Hilton Head neighborhoods, including Hilton Head Plantation, urged residents to delay their return.
TROPICAL STORM FLORENCE (Sept. 14, 2018 — minimal to no effect in Beaufort County)
Florence’s slow progression and shifting path led to confusion about evacuations in Beaufort County.
On Sept. 10, McMaster ordered an evacuation of counties along the entire South Carolina coast.
Less than 24 hours later, however, McMaster rescinded the evacuation orders for Beaufort and Jasper counties.
The whirlwind decision resulted in backlash from the Beaufort County business community, which said it experienced slow sales and employee shortages as a result.