As Hurricane Dorian moved past Charleston, those hoping to return to the coast Thursday afternoon have been urged to stay away for now.

Gov. Henry McMaster lifted his evacuation order for Beaufort, Colleton and Jasper counties at 2 p.m. Thursday, leaving his order in place in five other coastal counties, including Charleston. People heading back may find local roads tough to navigate and basic services lacking.

Dorian brought 50 to 70 mph winds in Charleston, downing trees and kicking up waves. As Dorian headed north and away from Charleston, tropical storm force winds were expected to pass the area by Thursday evening and leave the state entirely by Friday morning. Charleston County said that with slowing winds, its emergency services were able to get back on the streets at 2:30 p.m.

But at an afternoon press conference, McMaster said it was still unsafe to travel.

"Stay off the streets," McMaster said. "It's very dangerous."

Though Charleston escaped the worst predictions of flooding, McMaster said it is still too early to make a judgment about lifting the evacuation order. Local authorities are in charge of which roads will be open for travel, he said.

Officials stressed no one should drive through standing water, which causes the majority of hurricane-related deaths. Flash flood warnings were in place on the coast in the late afternoon, and two tornadoes had been spotted in North Myrtle Beach and Little River. 

If residents returned to Charleston on Thursday afternoon or evening, they may have been coming back to a mess. 

At 11 a.m., the city of Charleston's chief resilience officer, Mark Wilbert, said 21 gas stations were closed, out of power or out of gas. 

As the city began to flip from response mode to recovery mode, Wilbert said many basics were unlikely to be available right away. Power was out, grocery stores were closed and downtown streets were covered in leaves and other debris.

"Our goal is to get all of those services available before we start encouraging people to return," Wilbert said.

Fifty stoplights in Charleston were not working at one point Thursday. One on East Bay Street swung in the wind, blinking red and green at the same time. Street signs had been whipped off their posts or leaned dangerously over. At an afternoon press conference, city staff said 108 roads were closed. Thirty-seven power lines were down and 155 trees had fallen.

Wilbert said the city had taken 252 damage reports by 11 a.m. Debris cleanup would begin Friday at the earliest, he said, though efforts to move larger obstructions may extend into next week. 

Power outages across the coast were rampant, with some 240,000 homes out and counting. The entire city of Georgetown didn't have power in the early afternoon.

Hurricane Wire is a pop-up newsletter during hurricane season that delivers anyone who lives on the East Coast all the information they need to know as storms brew in the Atlantic and beyond.


Still under an evacuation order, it has been technically possible to return to Charleston since the Interstate 26 lane reversal was removed Wednesday. 

Christy Hall, secretary of the S.C. Department of Transportation, said staff have begun conducting evaluations in Colleton, Jasper and Beaufort counties. Bridges there checked out as in good condition. But staff had not yet been able to check roads and bridges in Charleston and north to Myrtle Beach. Hall said it is still not safe to use the roads in areas under evacuation.

"We are definitely not encouraging travel in those areas," Hall said.

The city of Folly Beach announced a curfew from midnight until 6 a.m. Friday. Roads to the beach town will open at 8 a.m. Still, the city was anticipating another day of power outages on some parts of the island.

In total, 441,000 people complied with the governor's evacuation order, a little more than half of the population told to leave, and 89,000 vehicles traveled on I-26 during the lane reversal.

AAA Carolinas offered practical advice for those planning a return. Travelers should keep their IDs with them, bring bottled water, pillows, blankets, first-aid kits, cash and a pair of sturdy boots. Drivers should plan for delays and keep their fuel tanks full

"Pack your patience," the roadside assistance company said in a press release. "Others on the road are experiencing similar frustrations. Focus on the positive."

Mikaela Porter and Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

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