Lowcountry still keeping close eye on Hurricane Florence

Lowcountry still keeping close eye on Hurricane Florence

JASPER CO., SC (WTOC) - Even though Hurricane Florence looks like it will no longer impact parts of the Lowcountry, we are still keeping a close watch.

WTOC's Storm Chaser spent a few hours at the Welcome Center at the Georgia-South Carolina line Tuesday afternoon. Traffic was slow moving in the area all day. We spoke to some folks who believe state officials really jumped the gun on Monday with the original evacuation order, now that the order has been lifted in three counties.

In fact, Governor McMaster was asked if he pulled the trigger too soon.

"We do not want to gamble with a single life of a single South Carolinian. We live on the coast, so we are going to have hurricanes, so we must take precautions," Gov. McMaster said.

Earlier in the day, beachgoers thought they would be gone, and many locals and tourists alike filled their cars with gas before leaving town. Clerks at a Parker's Gas Station in Hardeeville near I-95 say they started seeing crowds on Monday as people prepared to evacuate. Locals who say they weren't leaving even before Gov. McMaster lifted the mandatory evacuation still topped off their tanks. Many of the drivers we spoke with are heading to or from the Northeast, and they're hoping traffic and weather along the way isn't too bad.

"We just left Florida and we're going back home to North Carolina," said Glenn Parker. "We're going right toward the storm and we're going to ride it out."

"We were caught in the last hurricane traffic for 10 hours, so it wasn't good," said Dave Lavine, who is traveling to Florida.

"We're going to try to do an overnight, I'm not sure where," said Dave Laing, traveling to Maine. "Maybe Virginia might be good, but we're going to keep going until we can find a hotel room and plenty of fuel."

"Everybody's trying to get some gas, and they say already things are getting slim down home, but that's where we're heading," Parker said.

"We were next to other people yesterday at dinner time. They were in hotels, and they said, 'our hotel kicked us out.' So, they all had to leave this morning. We were lucky that our vacation was not disturbed. Just some lucky family here," said Brian Luca, who is visiting Hilton Head Island.

Beaufort County agencies have sent out alert after alert to warn beachgoers to stay out of the water. Although ocean conditions might appear to be mild, rip currents are projected to be severe. This applies to folks on the beach as well as boaters in the water. We spoke to a Florida native turned Hilton Head Island resident who has been through 25 hurricanes and says he knows the power of this rip currents.

"Rip currents can be pretty treacherous, and you've gotta be careful because they can jerk you off your feet even if you're up to your knees, so you need to be aware of how to get out of them," said Robert Merkel, Hilton Head.

The currents are only expected to become stronger throughout the week.

Hardeeville Police Chief Sam Woodward says a lot of people are evacuating through the area from other places. He says to drive safely and drive the speed limit. Also, even though the evacuation is lifted does not mean people shouldn't be prepared. The Hardeeville Police Department officers will be working double shifts, which means seven to eight officers will be working a shift instead of three to four officers at a time. Officers will be checking on property and helping other emergency agencies. Woodward says whether a storm comes or not, they will be out in the community ready to help.

"While we may not get a major hit from this hurricane, we are using this as an exercise to beef up everything, to make sure we are ready for it in case it did happen to come this way, and we will continue doing that for the next couple of days."

"Anytime you move that amount of people along a short period of time, you're asking for something to happen, so we are very, very happy that all those people are not in motion and those that are just staying put," said Mayor Harry Williams, City of Hardeeville.

We talked to the Hilton Head Island mayor shortly after Gov. McMaster's announcement to reverse those orders.

"My message to them is if they are free to come home, the island is open, they should continue to remain vigilant until the storm is indeed far past its ability to potentially impact Hilton Head Island," said Mayor David Bennett, Hilton Head Island. "Our intention is that tomorrow all town hall offices will be closed. They will likely be back open on Thursday. The public meetings for this week have all been canceled."

Vacationers on Hilton Head Island who now aren't going anywhere say they're glad to finish their trips, but business leaders say confusion and cancellations are already costing the island.

"A lot of our guests have already left, so some of those are now in route back, fortunately," said Buddy Konackny, Owner and Broker in Charge, Seashore Vacations. "There's a large percentage that are already gone. Most are gone, and we're trying to now preserve next weekend. Saturday."

"We have to regroup, and once that room night is lost, the opportunity to ever have that again is gone," said Bill Miles, President and CEO of HHI-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. "Once that seat in the restaurant is not filled that night, that opportunity is lost as well, so right now, we're working very hard in getting the message out that Hilton Head Island and Bluffton and Beaufort County are certainly open for business."

Being prepared also means being ready to help those directly impacted by Florence. Local power companies are in a holding pattern now, preparing to send their own teams north to help those in North and South Carolina get power back, should Hurricane Florence cause power outages.

"We wait until we assess our damages that come from the storm, and then at that point in time, if we're good here, then we'll offer crews to our state organizations to relocate where they're needed," said Tray Hunter, Palmetto Electric Cooperative.

Beaufort County School District schools will remain closed for the rest of the week. The Jasper County School District says schools will be closed for the entire week. Hampton County School District 1 schools will be open Wednesday.

Beaufort County School District officials say at least 80 percent of classroom teachers and school staff would need to be available for schools to reopen.

A survey of school principals on Tuesday indicated that goal cannot be achieved because many teachers and staff already left Beaufort County Monday once the evacuation order was announced.

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