South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster did not reinstate the evacuation order for Beaufort County on Wednesday — despite growing speculation as Hurricane Florence’s path continues to shift farther south.
Still, McMaster encouraged residents who live in “an area that usually floods” to evacuate.
“Go ahead and leave. Go find higher ground, because you may be in danger,” he said during an afternoon news conference, later adding that about 300,000 people have thus far evacuated the state’s coastal areas, a number he wished was higher.
It was the third time in as many days that he has addressed the public on the storm, which was downgraded from Category 4 to 3 Wednesday afternoon.
On Monday, McMaster announced a coastal evacuation order for the entire state, which was to take effect at noon Tuesday.
About 20 hours later — a little after 11 a.m. Tuesday — McMaster lifted the order for Beaufort, Jasper and Colleton counties.
At that time, Beaufort County was not in the path — also known as the “cone of uncertainty” — of the storm. The county was also not included in any storm surge watch or hurricane watch issued by the National Hurricane Center.
As of Wednesday afternoon, however, Beaufort County was back in the storm’s possible path, causing both residents and county officials increased concern about the storm’s potential impact on the area.
When asked during the news conference if his decision to lift the evacuation was premature, McMaster side-stepped the question and said state officials were making decisions “based on the facts” and using the most up-to-date information.
“(B)ut as we have been predicting, this hurricane is unpredictable,” McMaster said earlier in the conference. “I can assure you what we’re telling you here is the very best (information) we have available ... .”
Beaufort County could experience lower-end tropical storm force winds — about 30-35 mph — as early as Thursday, Mike Emlaw of the National Weather Service in Charleston said Wednesday morning.
The National Weather Service’s John Quagliarielloro, also at the news conference, said Florence was currently moving west-northwest at 16 m.p.h. with winds at 125 m.p.h.
The storm, he said, would be “a long-duration, high-impact” event for the South Carolina coast and many inland areas in the state.
Meteorologist Bob Bright of the National Weather Service in Charleston said Florence could bring anywhere from a half-inch to as much as 10 inches. Bright continued to say that Beaufort County could expect tides to bring in some flooding “in the next two days.”
At a press conference Wednesday morning, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said the county was in “standby mode.”
Tanner continued by saying that another evacuation order for Beaufort County was possible and residents should “be prepared to move inward.”
“We’ve had some changes in the storm’s direction — some that are concerning us,” he said Wednesday. “... As we progress through the day and into the evening, we’re going to keep a close watch on the storm’s movement.”
The sheriff’s office urged residents to consider where they live and what happened to their property during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Tropical Storm Irma in 2017.
“If you’re not comfortable being there in those scenarios, then we strongly encourage you to take off and go somewhere safe now,” Lt. Col. Neil Baxley, commander of the Sheriff’s Office’s Emergency Management Division, said Wednesday.
Baxley also stated that residents planning to evacuate should head toward Georgia and Florida, not further into South Carolina, where the storm is also expected to pose danger.
On Monday, McMaster had said he expected about a million people to evacuate the state’s coastal areas.
When asked Wednesday if he was worried citizens weren’t heeding the order — given the 300,000 evacuees he cited earlier in the news conference — McMaster said he thought people were listening and leaving.
State officials said traffic volumes — aided by lane-reversals — were two to four times higher than normal leaving the Myrtle Beach and Georgetown areas, and one-and-a-half times higher leaving the Charleston area.
Officials said 34 shelters — which, combined, can hold 35,000 people — are open; more shelters are on standby status, which would almost double the total capacity. About 1,800 people are currently in shelters.
All of the coast’s state parks are closed with the exception of Hunting Island in Beaufort County.
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