APTOPIX Tropical Weather (copy)

This Sept. 2, 2019 photo provided by NASA shows the eye of Hurricane Dorian from the International Space Station. Nick Hague/NASA via AP

People who don't intend to evacuate South Carolina's coast with Hurricane Dorian said the state's chief Emergency Management Division spokesman was being snarky and disrespectful as they bickered over social media.

But veteran spokesman Derrec Becker said he was just doing his job to save lives.

"They don’t want to leave, and that’s what hurts and that’s what’s scary," he told The Post and Courier on Wednesday. "We have a major hurricane. It’s nothing personal. We're trying to educate folks."

Social media and cellphone alerts that read "Residents Must Leave Now" prompted Johns Island resident Thomas Legare to ask the SCEMD late Tuesday, "Who the hell do you think y'all are telling us to leave?" 

Becker responded to the direct message. "We're the emergency management division ... there's currently an emergency. There's also an evacuation."

Legare shot back, "And you're being a little rude. We're not leaving. ... Why would I?"

An hours-long commentary commenced after Legare posted parts of the exchange on his Facebook page, with others chiming in that the headline to "leave now" was irresponsible and incited panic. 

They also blasted Becker's warning that the potential storm surge of 10-plus feet, as predicted at the time, "is not survivable."

Responding to the criticism and disbelief that followed, Becker said, "A 10-foot wall of water coming ashore is nothing I want to play with ... or try to survive.

"No one's belittling anyone ... we're worried ... and afraid people will get injured or killed. Time for nice is over. It's time to leave," he wrote as comments called him "ridiculous," "snarky" and noted not everyone in the Bahamas died when Dorian hit as a Category 5 storm with winds of up 185 mph and stalled for a day and a half.

By Wednesday evening, Dorian was a near-Category 3 storm with winds of 110 mph as it crawled toward the Palmetto State. 

But it's the water, not the wind, officials in South Carolina are most worried about, said Becker, who's been with the agency for 11 years.  

Becker left the conversation after about an hour, but the comments continued through Wednesday afternoon.

A few supported Becker: "Thank you for playing nice with the trolls. ... Good job!" read one. "He's been a good sport!" read another. 

Becker said he hopes he's wrong and the hurricane becomes nothing more than a named rainstorm. Telling people to leave their homes is certainly not what officials want to do, as they understand the hardship, but the agency's role is to plan for the worst to save lives, he said. 

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.

"Our messaging is very simple. Instead of 'All residents are encouraged and urged to evacuate,' we say, 'Leave now.' Not only is it simple and direct, it’s easy to translate in multiple languages," Becker said Wednesday. 

While the order to evacuate is officially mandatory, those who stay won't be fined or criminally charged.

But they will be on their own after the winds get above 40 mph, and emergency crews may not be able to reach them for awhile. Still, officials generally don't draw attention to the fact that evacuation orders have no teeth. 

Telling people to "leave now" is not screaming, Becker said. 

"That's not shouting. There were no caps, no exclamation points," he said about the news release and his posts. "Hide from wind. Run from water. We evacuate from a storm surge."

As of 8 a.m. Wednesday, an estimated 38 percent of the 830,000 people in eight counties ordered to evacuate the coast ahead of Hurricane Dorian's arrival had left.

If Dorian shifts east, lessening the danger to South Carolina, "that would be great." But preparation is essential, said Gov. Henry McMaster.

"If you are still in an evacuation zone, you still have time to get out. But the time to get out is running out," he said Wednesday afternoon. "It's the water that kills people, and it is clear we’re going to have a lot of water. More people die in hurricanes from water than anything else. You need to go ahead and leave."

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.