State officials say an estimated 250,000 people have evacuated from the Beaufort and Charleston regions as Hurricane Matthew draws closer to South Carolina.
Gov. Nikki Haley said Wednesday that number could get as high as 500,000 by the weekend as more coastal areas evacuate on Thursday. Haley issued an order Wednesday afternoon to evacuate residents in Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton Dorchester and Jasper counties. She said in an evening briefing that the order could come around noon Thursday.
Hurricane Matthew was roughly 200 miles south of the Bahamas as of 5 p.m. Wednesday, but its projected path is now much closer to the Florida coast than previous models predicted. Those models now have Matthew’s center passing roughly 60-70 miles offshore past Hilton Head and Charleston, on Saturday before turning out to sea. However, the National Weather Service is warning that Matthew’s path is still unpredictable at this point.
“Everyone should focus, not on the center track of the storm, but on the range of possibilities,” NWS meteorologist John Quagliariello said. “And realize that we need to prepare for this storm.”
Highway officials have closed Interstate 26 to all eastbound traffic between Columbia and Charleston in order to shift those lanes to handle evacuating westbound traffic. Drivers will be given the choice to drive down the reversed lanes, but they will not be able to exit between Charleston and the Interstate 77 intersection outside Columbia. Those drivers hoping to continue north on I-26 past Columbia will then be detoured around Columbia’s outer beltway and link back to I-26 at its intersection with I-20.
“We do anticipate the reversal to be in place. We should plan for at least Friday morning,” Department of Transportation Secretary Christie Hall said. “Of course, we’ll reevaluate it along the way to see what changes we need to make.”
The governor said most hotel rooms in South Carolina are close to being full due to the evacuation. Rooms were particularly full in Columbia, where many hotels were already slated to host fans of Saturday’s University of Georgia-University of South Carolina football game.
While the game is still scheduled for now, Haley said the normal assortment of Highway Patrol troopers and other state law enforcement will not be available to work traffic and security. “We will not be able to give any state support for that game. I can’t take troopers off the road to go put them at a football game.” However, Columbia police and other local law enforcement would still be available if the game is played.