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From left, Caitlin Tobin and her daughter Garnet Tobin help out Lisa Redden pull down plastic sheets off of a bookshelf in a classroom at Charleston Day School on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 in preparation for classes to return back on Monday. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

At the Ladson rest stop off Interstate 26, Ryan Lennard and Madison Sexton cleaned out their car before making the final leg of their 14-hour trip home to Charleston from Ohio, where they fled from Hurricane Florence.

The couple tossed blankets and bags of clothing onto a sidewalk while Carmel, their greyhound pitbull mix, wagged her tail from the backseat.

“It was a breeze,” Lennard said. “Easy getting there, easy getting back.”

Gov. Henry McMaster ordered more than 760,000 people from Edisto Beach to Little River to leave town Tuesday as Hurricane Florence's predicted path joggled up and down the coast. Only an estimated 441,000 people actually left — and about half of those were from Georgetown and Horry counties.

Vehicles whirred along I-26 and Highway 17 as evacuees returned to the Lowcountry on Sunday.

Most arrived home to find their yards barely moistened and a few small trees and limbs down, if that, even as Hurricane Florence left a wake of dangerous flooding and at least 17 deaths across the northern counties of South Carolina and hardest-hit North Carolina.

But across the Charleston region, Walmart doors whooshed back open. Plywood was taken down from windows. CARTA buses chugged down streets. Planes soared from the airport. And students prepared to head back to class after an almost week-long hiatus.

Evacuation too long?

As locals found their way home, many businesses opened shop again as well, a relief to those who stayed in town with little to do but wait for a drenching rain that instead dribbled less than an inch along the middle and southern coast.

Others prepared to re-open Monday after almost a week of lost business.

Torrey Glass closed his restaurant, 60 Bull Cafe, for the week after Gov. Henry McMaster called for a total coastal evacuation on Monday. 

Glass said his Hurricane Florence closure has lasted longer than the past two hurricanes — combined.

"This was a slow moving storm. For him to declare an evacuation was way, way, way early," Glass said. "I know we were right on the edge of it, but we could have delayed things a little."

The governor also should have let people return to the Lowcountry on Friday instead of Saturday, he said.

"In that position, you need be a little more introspective on the effect the evacuation order would have on small business," Glass said.

Lost learning time

Students and teachers felt similar storm effects. Public and private schools along most of the coast prepared to re-open Monday after an unplanned four-day break from instruction, homework and tests.

Those at the University of South Carolina scrambled on Sunday to return to campus for Monday classes. They had expected to be out until Tuesday, but over the weekend school officials announced a quick change.

USC President Harris Pastides sent a letter to parents and students explaining that, as a state agency, the school had to follow the lead of Richland County government in opening Monday.

Students who cannot get back in time due to the earlier announcement won't be penalized, although they still must make up work they missed.

For many, the disruption felt disconcertingly familiar.

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Head of School, Judith Foley Arnstein brings in the CDS pillows onto the porch rocking chairs at Charleston Day School on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 in preparation for classes to return back on Monday. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

"A week is a long time to be away during the course of a semester," Pastides wrote. "As an undergrad, I remember an occasional snowstorm, which closed school for a day or two at a time, but nothing like this. I hope this isn't our new normal. However, our seniors might argue otherwise, as this is the fourth fall in a row they have experienced either a flood or hurricane."

That rush on the back end comes after McMaster's evacuation call last Monday, almost a week before the hurricane made landfall, left many local teachers scratching their heads on the front end. 

Vanessa Denney is principal of Early College High School where students taking Trident Technical College classes, along with their teachers, now face an even faster race to squeeze in instruction, assignments, and tests to get credits.

After 16 years in teaching and administration, Denney was surprised that the schools were closed so early. She expected it to come Tuesday at the earliest.

"Monday threw us for a loop a little," she said. 

Like other districts, Charleston County School's calendar includes make-up days. It reserved the first two days at the start of Thanksgiving week and President's Day on Feb. 18. The fourth day that students missed, and up two more future ones, can be forgiven by the school board when they meet again. After that, it is up to the state.

Spokesman Andy Pruitt emphasized that the district will work with those who evacuated. 

"We understand people left and may have trouble getting back. Parents and people who work for us, we will work with them," he said. "We're all just trying to figure it out together."

Rebuilding routine

Schools had about three weeks of instruction time before the sudden break. Now, teachers have lost almost a week of learning, so critical early in the school year.

Fall standardized tests also ramp up the pressure. Some schools had begun administering the tests on the Monday before schools shut down.

Emily Williams, a fourth-grade teacher at Buist Academy in Charleston, evacuated to Florida. She's worried about how much teaching time and routine she's lost. 

"We were in the groove of things, just getting started and then, bam!" Williams said. "It's a lot of unstructure. You're in school. You're out of school. You're in school. You're out of school. It just stinks."

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But like other teachers, she planned to arrive at school early Monday to get her classroom ready, find out when standardized testing would be rescheduled, then finesse her students back into focus.

Elissa Chrismer, a teacher at East Cooper Christian Preschool, worried that the youngest students must re-adjust to saying good-bye to mom or dad. 

"Some of those kiddos will have a tough time because we just started the day after Labor Day," Chrismer said. "It will be like starting over for them."

Of course, it could have been much worse.

"I was watching the devastation in North Carolina," Williams said. "I'm just thankful that nothing happened to us."

That goodwill appears to have carried over into how folks conducted themselves.

In Charleston and Mount Pleasant, police didn't receive any reports of looting during the evacuation — unlike in Wilmington, N.C., where officials said dozens of people ransacked dollar stores.

Welcome to Charleston

Judith Foley Arnstein had just moved to town from Chicago to begin work leading Charleston Day School. She was used to snow days in the middle of the school year — but not hurricane days at the very start. 

On Sunday, she was the last person on campus after a dozen teachers came in to help pull down plastic and return computers to classrooms. 

Her formal installation as head of school also was scheduled for Monday.

That, too, is postponed.

"It was probably the strongest possible welcome to have Hurricane Florence be my indoctrination," she said.

She was able to laugh about it.

But really she had a quieter question: Is this really the norm on South Carolina's coast?

Andy Shain contributed.

Contact Jennifer Hawes at 843-937-5563. Follow her on Twitter @jenberryhawes.

Jennifer Berry Hawes is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team who worked on the newspaper's Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation, "Till Death Do Us Part."

Angie Jackson covers crime and breaking news for The Post and Courier. She previously covered the same beat for the Grand Rapids Press and in Michigan. When she’s not reporting, Angie enjoys teaching yoga and exploring the outdoors.