As Charleston-area residents faced their third hurricane evacuation in four years' time, many called the latest departure order a premature move that will disrupt lives and drain wages while a possible landfall from the ever-dangerous Dorian remains uncertain.
To officials watching the storm rip through the Bahamas like a circular saw, it was an easy call: Gov. Henry McMaster ordered people out, so it was time to go.
"We respect the governor's decision. We support it," Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said. "The governor has issued that order, and it's up to us to roll with the punches and get the job done at this point."
But others weren't so sure.
Many residents took a pass on an early exit from the Lowcountry until they could get a better read on the storm and its potential threat to the South Carolina coast.
On Monday afternoon, Dorian was still churning toward Florida with a Palmetto State appearance not forecast until Thursday. That left some feeling like the governor had jumped the gun Sunday with his call for some 830,000 people to make a hasty exit before Labor Day grilling had even begun.
“The order was way too fast and too soon,” Keeley Polvari, a longtime North Charleston resident, said. “It hurts people with families and children, now they’re out of school and need to figure out what to do. I know people need to prepare, but it seemed too quick.”
The governor's order proved a challenge for some residents trying to make their way back home after the long holiday weekend, with lane reversals on Interstate 26 blocking incoming traffic to Charleston. To others, the move presented a potential economic hardship, a double-whammy of lost earnings and unanticipated travel expenses. And it jangled nerves already frayed from watching the storm's slow and brutal march across the Caribbean.
Evacuations for major storms have also dealt a major blow to the state and the region's visitor industry. Over the past four years, South Carolina has lost an estimated $321 million in direct visitor spending due to hurricanes and flooding. The Charleston area alone missed out on about $111.3 million in direct visitor spending when Hurricane Florence threatened to make landfall in the Lowcountry last year.
A tough call
Dorian has proven to be an even greater puzzle for forecasters, a fearsome cyclone with immense destructive power and a penchant for uncertainty surrounding its final destination. That's left a wide swath of the Atlantic coastline as a potential target, with no one really sure if the storm will make landfall or not.
McMaster made no apologies for weighing in early with his evacuation call, as he did last year with Florence. And he wasn't alone. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp also issued a mandatory evacuation order Sunday night in an effort to give people ample time to get out of harm's way.
"We know that we can't make everyone happy with these actions and these orders and we know some people may be inconvenienced, but this is the best way to keep South Carolinians alive," the governor said during a briefing at the state's emergency operations center in West Columbia.
That made sense to more than a few people, as demonstrated by the brisk traffic on Interstate 26 heading out of town.
But images of the exodus belied another truth: There are a lot of people still here. And the evacuation order has made it difficult for businesses to stay open to serve them.
By early afternoon Monday, Kimberly Heinz had sold out of sand, sandbags and generators at East Bay True Value Hardware in Charleston. But the owner of the King Street supply store said she had yet to hear one customer say they planned to evacuate.
Heinz said she shared her customers' belief that McMaster had pulled the trigger too early on the evacuation. Most customers told her they plan to hunker down and stay due to the unpredictability of the storm. But with lane reversals in place, she isn’t sure if her supply truck will be able to make it in a timely manner over the next couple of days.
“The problem is, they did it last year, too,” Heinz said of the evacuation orders. “We don’t even know if it’s coming here and we’re reversing roads. People aren’t sure how it’s going to play out, because the storm is so slow.”
Normal Labor Day crowds on Market Street were reduced to nothing more than small groups of scattered tourists admiring the plywood-clad T-shirt shops, restaurants and bars.
A few carriage horses with empty wagons in tow stomped their way down damp streets. The Old South Carriage Company had closed all tours on Monday. Aaron’s Deli and Hyman’s Seafood Company, major tourist magnets on a typically bustling holiday, were battening down and boarding up in anticipation of the unknown. The main yellow building that welcomes visitors to the open-air Charleston City Market had been covered with sandbags.
Ken Zomer, one of the managers at Henry’s Jazz and Seafood on the Market, said many of the restaurant’s staffers called to say they wouldn't make it in due to the evacuation order. As a result, Zomer and his fellow managers will be meeting Tuesday as they finalize their plans to shut their doors until Friday.
“A lot of our people aren’t leaving the state, but many are now leaving the city,” Zomer said. “I mean, when the warning goes out, that’s their right to go.”
For many in the region, the hardship works both ways, with employees going several days without pay during a storm.
The majority of employers in the Charleston region don't offer pay to make up for time lost at work due to severe weather emergencies, according to a compensation study released by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce last week. About 32 percent of manufacturers and 23 percent of other employers responded that they compensate their employees for the lost time.
Still, McMaster is confident he made the right choice in calling for the evacuation when he did. With forecasts late in the day showing the storm potentially edging closer to the South Carolina coast, he had strong support from local officials for that call.
"Not too early and not too late, we did it just right," he said. "We followed the procedures and made the judgments we made in countless hurricanes."
Whatever happens, some local spots such as King Street’s Uptown Social or Recovery Room Tavern plan to ride out the storm and stay open for the duration. Pending a major power outage or direct orders from city officials, they’re ready to provide for residents who know a thing or two about Carolina hurricanes. Three trucks offloading cases and cases of Budweiser and Bud Light were pouring into Rec Room on Monday.
Hurricane Dorian is likely to take a familiar track into South Carolina.
“We’re all sticking around,” Rec Room Manager Bonner Clark said. “I don’t know of anyone who is leaving. Granted, the wind speed is higher than anything we’ve ever seen before. But (the evacuation) is kind of a boy who cried wolf scenario.”
As for Keith Benjamin, the owner of Uptown Social, he isn’t expecting the worst. He worked with a property in New York during Hurricane Sandy and feels optimistic his business will be staying open during Dorian.
“Don’t put your safety at risk so you can come and drink a beer,” Benjamin said. “But we want this to be a place where, if you’re sticking around town, you can come and bond together.”
Emily Williams and Andy Shain contributed to this story.