S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster announced a mandatory evacuation Monday of the South Carolina coast, effective at noon Tuesday.
Residents in eight counties along the coast — Jasper, Beaufort, Colleton, Charleston, Dorchester, Berkeley, Georgetown and Horry — must begin evacuating by noon Tuesday, McMaster said at a news briefing.
McMaster said the state will reverse lanes on four main roads — so that all lanes are leading away from the coast — to facilitate the evacuation. As many as a million people could leave the coast, the governor said.
The move also closed state offices and schools in the eastern half of the state, including Lexington and Richland counties, where tropical storm-strength winds are expected as early as late Thursday.
“We know the evacuation order I’m issuing will be inconvenient,” McMaster said. “But we’re not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one.”
As of noon Tuesday, lanes will reverse on Interstate 26 from Charleston to Columbia and U.S. 501 from Myrtle Beach.
U.S. 278 and 21 in Beaufort County will be ready for reversal as of noon Tuesday, but officials will wait to make an order at that time.
The reversal on I-26 will begin at the interchange of I-26 and I-526 in Charleston and continue west until the I-26 crossover to I-77, just outside Columbia in Lexington County.
Horry County will have two four-lane reversals along U.S. 501 — from S.C. 544 to U.S. 378, and between S.C. 22 and S.C. 576 near Marion County.
The state Transportation Department likely will begin diverting eastbound traffic off I-26 in Columbia to U.S. 321 or I-77 north at 8 a.m. Tuesday, it said.
State offices — including the University of South Carolina — and schools also will close in 26 counties in the eastern part of the state Tuesday, McMaster said. Some schools will be used as evacuation shelters, which will open as needed, officials said Monday.
“We don’t want the school children in harm’s way,” McMaster said, adding Hurricane Florence would create more wind than Hurricane Hugo and more water than Hurricane Matthew. “We know it’s going to hit somewhere where it’s going to have a dramatic impact on South Carolina. ... We’re going to get a whole lot of water that we haven’t seen in some time.”
McMaster previously issued a mandatory medical evacuation of 177 hospitals and medical facilities, including nursing homes, in the eight coastal counties.
Projections Monday showed the storm making landfall in the area of Wilmington, N.C., early Friday morning, but much of South Carolina still could see a significant impact, including high winds, rain and flooding.
S.C. Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, tweeted Monday afternoon that McMaster had told legislators he would order evacuations for the coast beginning at noon Tuesday.
Hurricane Florence was still a Category 4 hurricane on Tuesday morning but had weakened, with sustained winds of 130 mph. It is forecast to gain strength again as it moves toward the East Coast.
“The hurricane’s wind field is expected to grow with time as it approaches the coast of the Carolinas,” said John Quagliariello from the National Weather Service in Columbia. “It is still expected to be a large and extremely dangerous hurricane when it makes landfall,” expected late Thursday.
Quagliariello emphasized the impact of the hurricane, including tropical storm-force winds, could extend more than 100 miles from the storm’s center. Hurricane-force winds could extend more than 50 miles from the storm’s center, putting much of the state at risk of destructive winds.
Life-threatening storm surges — as high as 10 feet or more — also are likely along portions of the coast, in addition to high surf and “deadly” rip currents, which Quagliariello said will continue through the week.
“Once Florence moves inland, it is expected to weaken and move very slowly, resulting in a prolonged and exceptionally heavy rainfall event along and north of the track,” he said. “This could result in significant river flooding across portions of the state into next week.”
McMaster formally declared a state of emergency Saturday, allowing officials to put hurricane preparations into effect and begin coordinating resources. The S.C. National Guard also can be deployed during an emergency.
The state has submitted a request to President Donald Trump for a federal disaster declaration, clearing the way for federal money and assistance for any damage from the storm.
“Team South Carolina is moving into position ... to facilitate the evacuation, but are also positioning to do post-storm activities,” said Maj. Gen. Robert E. Livingston Jr., head of the National Guard. “That includes search and rescue, evacuation, wellness checks, security and route clearance.”
Currently, 1,600 National Guard members are on duty and ready to deploy — a number Livingston said likely will grow to more than 3,000.
The Transportation Department also has more than 3,000 employees ready to deploy, and more than 440 additional state law enforcement officers have been moved to the coast.
“Whether price-gouging, looting or break-ins, I want everyone to know that ... lawlessness during this period of time will not be tolerated,” said State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel.
All evacuation routes and zones are detailed in the 2018 S.C. Hurricane Guide. Evacuation shelter locations will be available on scemd.org and in the SC Emergency Management Division’s mobile app as soon as they are opened.
“Get prepared and move,” McMaster said to coastal residents, including those who aren’t in an evacuation zone. “Don’t take a chance. This is not the time to take a chance.”