For the first time in recent memory, a mandatory evacuation order ahead of a hurricane was lifted for Beaufort County but there is a chance it could be reinstated, county officials said Tuesday afternoon.
Any decision to reinstate the mandatory evacuation order would be made by S.C. Governor Henry McMaster.
If the projected path of the storm changes and poses a greater threat to Beaufort County, officials say they are ready to jump back into action.
A phone call and email to McMaster’s press secretary were not immediately returned Tuesday afternoon. The S.C. Emergency Management Division declined to comment on whether an evacuation order could be reinstated, or when that could possibly happen.
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As of 2 p.m. Tuesday, parts of Beaufort County remained in the projected “cone” of Hurricane Florence, according to the National Hurricane Center. Hilton Head Island is not included in the storm’s predicted track.
Less than an hour after McMaster lifted the order for Beaufort, Jasper, and Colleton counties, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office said all law enforcement was staying in the area in case the hurricane changes direction and comes back toward the county.
Sheriff P.J. Tanner said at a Tuesday press conference that county officials and the Sheriff’s Office need to shift their focus from evacuating citizens to planning on what to do moving forward.
Lt. Col. Neil Baxley, commander of the Sheriff’s Office’s Emergency Management Division, said all law enforcement in the area — including the S.C. Highway Patrol and S.C. National Guard that deployed additional troops to the county — will remain ready in “standby mode.”
“Through lessons learned — and we’ve now done this three times in three years — we’ve gotten really good at being flexible,” Baxley said. “We’re now in a position where we’re prepared for it ... but we have (the resources) to make a real-time decision.”
Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Capt. Bob Bromage said if the evacuation order is reinstated, law enforcement in the area would be able to “rapidly” get evacuation plans going.
Bromage said the Sheriff’s Office will continue to send out advisories until there’s no longer a threat and encouraged citizens to watch for them.
Joheida Fister, spokesperson for Hilton Head Fire Rescue, said Tuesday afternoon the island’s emergency operations center personnel have been told to “be on alert” and to know that if the storm changes, it’s possible they will be called back in.
“Everything is still in place,” she said. “And just like us, everybody just needs to stay vigilant and pay attention.”
None of the officials at the press conference — including Tanner, who has been sheriff for two decades — could remember a time when a mandatory evacuation had been called off.
Tanner said he appreciates Gov. McMaster rescinding the order for Beaufort County, but citizens should continue to follow the storm.
“The (law enforcement) assets will remain on standby in Beaufort County,” Tanner said. “We will not change anything. The only thing that changed today is that we will not have an evacuation.”
According to an informal poll posted to The Island Packet’s Facebook page before the evacuation order was lifted, 80 percent of voters said they were not planning to evacuate as of 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. There were 575 votes.