U.S. 278 on Hilton Head Island and through Bluffton was largely vacant on Wednesday evening, even though the highway’s traffic was set to be reversed for evacuations related to Hurricane Matthew.
Gov. Nikki Haley earlier this week ordered a 3 p.m. evacuation of the county — and as that deadline approached, military and law enforcement personnel were positioned at most major intersections along U.S. 278 and S.C. 170.
Joy Riley, Lowcountry program manager for South Carolina Department of Transportation, said she witnessed first-hand the difference between the Charleston and Beaufort County evacuations while driving from Columbia earlier in the day.
“It was apparent people were leaving Charleston and heading toward Columbia,” Riley said. “ ... I don’t know what is happening here in Beaufort. I don’t know if they left already or if they are still working on their houses.”
Capt. Bob Bromage, spokesman for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, said thousands of people left prior to the official start of the evacuation. He said it is possible many people are watching the track of the storm and seeing that it won’t hit until the weekend.
The worry is that everyone could leave at once right before the storm hits, he said.
While drivers may have put a bit of wear and tear on their brakes during stop-and-go traffic near the Interstate 95 interchanges, the county’s evacuation was going smoothly as of late Wednesday afternoon, Bob Kudelka of the S.C. Department of Transportation said.
“I haven’t heard of any major (transportation) problems,” he said.
There have been no signs of price gouging by gas stations or hotels, with the priciest South Carolina gas around $2.29, Haley said in a 6 p.m. press conference.
“Hotels are pretty much full,” Haley said, advising evacuees to check booking websites for vacancies in areas like Anderson, Greenville, Charlotte and Asheville.
Many stores and businesses shut down Wednesday afternoon, but some owners vowed to keep their establishments open as long as possible.
David Martin, owner of the Piggly Wiggly store in Coligny Plaza on Hilton Head Island, said he “will stay open as long (he) has the staff to do it.”
“It’s really not about making more sales,” he said. “We are trying to provide a service.”
While the forecast remains uncertain, Beaufort County could see four to 10 inches of rain starting Thursday evening and through Saturday, National Weather Service meteorologist James Carpenter said Wednesday.
Meteorologists at the Weather Channel are predicting 10 to 15 inches of rain in coastal parts of the county.
Carpenter said the area could see 100 mph winds, life-threatening rip currents, isolated tornadoes, torrential rains and flash flooding between Friday and Saturday.
As of late Wednesday, Matthew, which has killed more than dozen people in the Caribbean, was “bearing down on the Bahamas and aiming toward Florida,” according to a National Weather Service report.
The slow-moving storm will likely take a northwestern turn as it passes over the Bahamas, John Quagliariello of the National Weather Service said during Haley’s afternoon press conference.
If the storm stays on that northwestern path, it will push the system very close to Florida’s east coast on Friday and the South Carolina coast Friday night or Saturday morning, Quagliariello said. The eye wall may hit the coast or remain just offshore, and it is still unclear how long it might stay there.
“We want everyone to focus on the cone of uncertainty,” Quagliariello said, adding that any deviation from the storm’s projected course could have “significant impacts” for South Carolina.
National Weather Service meteorologist Michael Stroz said it’s important to focus on the entire storm system, not just the eye. Matthew could be up to 100 miles wide, he said, and even if you’re 100 miles from the eye of the storm, you could still see tropical-storm level winds.
The Island Packet’s Johnny Woodard contributed to this report.