(TNS) - South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster did not mince words on Thursday, delivering a dire message mainly to those coastal residents who have chosen to remain in their homes despite repeated warnings to leave as Hurricane Florence creeps toward the coast.
“If you’re going to leave … you should leave now because time is running out,” McMaster said on Thursday. “Once these winds start blowing at that tropical storm rate, it will be virtually impossible for the rescuers to get in to rescue you.”
More than 421,000 South Carolinians have already evacuated from the coast, McMaster said. Of those who left, more than 4,000 had sought housing at emergency shelters across the state. Sixty-one shelters have opened in South Carolina — 12 of which are designated for special medical needs — able to now accommodate more than 31,000 people.
Two of those 61 shelters are at full capacity.
Meanwhile, lane reversals on U.S. 501 ended at noon and reversals on I-26 end Thursday night, allowing state police and transportation workers to get to a safe location before the storm hits.
A now weakened Category 2 storm, Hurricane Florence still is expected to be “extremely dangerous” and a “life-threatening hurricane” the National Hurricane Center said. The storm will have winds in the 110 mph range.
State officials and the National Weather Service warned the storm’s weakening only relates to wind speed, not surges or flooding.
“We’re seeing on social media, we’re seeing comments and calls coming into our hotline that people are saying, ‘Oh, it’s only a Cat 2.’ Well, only a Cat 2 has winds of up to 96 to 110 mph,” Derrec Becker, spokesman for the South Carolina Emergency Management Division told The State on Thursday.
“It can still kill you. It can still bring a massive storm surge ashore.”
The 400-mile-wide storm is predicted to start slamming the North Carolina coast Thursday night to early Friday, then weaken to a tropical storm as it drifts into South Carolina, said John Quagliariello, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Columbia.
Tropical storm-force winds will move into the Pee Dee and eastern Midlands on Friday, with strong winds expected in the central Midlands late Friday and western Midlands early Saturday, the National Weather Service reported. With it, the storm will drop significant rainfall across the Grand Strand — 15 inches to 20 inches and the Midlands — 4 inches to 10 inches.
McMaster warned of possible landslides in the Upstate, portions of which could get drenched with 10 inches of ran over the weekend.
For the Columbia area, state and city officials warn of flooding and the likelihood of flash flooding. Isolated tornadoes also are possible. The National Weather Service Thursday issued a flash flood watch for the Columbia area starting Friday morning through Sunday night.
McMaster and state officials urged residents eager to return home to be patient, stressing Florence will be a long-term event, with prolonged river flooding, power outages and road closures likely to extend well into next week.
“It’s going to be a lot of wind. A lot of rain,” said Maj. Gen. Robert E. Livingston Jr., head of the South Carolina National Guard. “While that rain is still coming down for a couple of days, one to two days later you’re going to have stuff coming from North Carolina and things coming in from the Upstate. So just because the rain starts letting up don’t assume everything’s good and you can go back to your house in some low-lying area, and then be surprised by the river coming up.”
National Guard soldiers from the state, North Carolina and Virginia are mobilizing to prepare for hurricane recovery efforts.
The U.S. Naval Forces North Command also has deployed ships off the S.C. coast once the storm passes for recovery and rescue efforts, should support be needed, said Lt. Cmdr. Brian Wierzbicki, with U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va.
“We’ve seen fatalities and deaths from tropical storms, from Category 1 storms and from Category 2 storms,” Becker said.
“This is going to be a bad, bad situation.”
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