Bluffton mayor: If you stay, you’re ‘putting your life in danger’

A suspected high number of Bluffton residents have yet to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Matthew, prompting Mayor Lisa Sulka to issue a video message Thursday afternoon, pleading them to go.

“If you stay, you’re putting your life in danger as well as all the first responders that are here working tirelessly to keep all of us safe and protected,” Sulka said in a video that was sent to the media and posted to the Bluffton Police Department’s Facebook page.

No estimates exist on the number of remaining town residents, said Joy Nelson, spokeswoman for the Bluffton Police Department. But only 175,000 of 1.1 million coastal residents had evacuated, according to Gov Nikki Haley during a Thursday morning news conference.

New Bluffton residents, unfamiliar with the dangers of hurricanes on the mainland, are part of the problem. So are longtime residents who have successfully weathered past storms, say town leaders.

But Hurricane Matthew, a giant Category 4 storm, is something most Bluffton residents have never experienced, say town officials. The eye of the deadly storm is expected to travel close to South Carolina’s coast between Friday night and Saturday morning.

“Meteorologists and experts are saying, this is a historic storm, that they have never seen anything like this,” Nelson said. “People need to leave.”

The threat to Bluffton is a storm surge — projected by some meteorologists to be 3 to 5 feet — that could happen at high tide, Nelson said. It could be paired with high winds and heavy rain.

“All of that water from the Atlantic is going to be thrown up into the May River, which can only handle so much. The water will go into roads, yards, homes,” she said.

Untrue rumors that looting is occurring in Bluffton may also be a reason some residents remain.

“I’ve driven around Bluffton all day today and we have officers riding around. There is no looting in Bluffton, S.C.,” Sulka said in the video. “If there are any issues, our Bluffton blue are prepared.”

Several residents who Bluffton police urged to evacuate on Thursday said they would leave Friday morning, said Lt. Joe Babkiewicz of the Bluffton Police.

But most say they plan to stay.

Meanwhile, hundreds of members of the National Guard, the S.C. Highway Patrol and the S.C. Forestry Commission are already set up in the Buckwalter Recreation Center to help during the storm.

For now, Bluffton’s 52 police officers are patrolling the town and continuing to encourage everyone they encounter to evacuate.

Once winds hit 40 to 45 miles per hour, Bluffton police officers will be pulled off the roads, Nelson said.

And that will slow emergency response times for town residents who stay behind.

“A first responder will most likely not be able to get to you,” Sulka said in her message.