COLUMBIA — Time is running out to flee South Carolina's coast ahead of Hurricane Florence, Gov. Henry McMaster said Thursday in making a last plea to the hundreds of thousands of residents still not heeding his order.
"Now is the time to go. That window of opportunity is closing very quickly," he said, as tropical force winds approached the Carolinas. Once they reach the Grand Strand, "you should not be on the road."
More than 760,000 people from Edisto Beach northward along the coast have been ordered to leave Florence's path, beginning at noon Tuesday. Two days later, an estimated 421,000 had actually left.
They include about 70 percent of Myrtle Beach's population, said Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall.
Lane reversals on U.S. Hwy. 501 that enabled all lanes to flow out of Myrtle Beach ended at noon Thursday. They will end by 6 p.m. on Interstate 26 coming out of Charleston, so officers can get to safety.
There's still plenty of room at emergency shelters. Of the 61 statewide, only one in Goose Creek is at capacity. The others have space for more than 31,000 additional people, said Joan Meacham, acting director of the Department of Social Services.
While Hurricane Florence continued Thursday to weaken and slow down, the potential remains for catastrophic flooding across both states.
The dangerous hurricane still had winds of 105 mph, a Category 2 storm, and the unpredictable storm could strengthen again slightly. Forecasters expect it to stall off North Carolina near the South Carolina border and rake the coast before making landfall Friday morning near Wilmington.
The Grand Strand could get more than 20 inches of rain. Flash flooding is likely, particularly in the Pee Dee, said John Quagliariello, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
The storm is expected to dump rain on South Carolina for two days as it slowly moves westward, potentially triggering landslides in the Upstate, McMaster said.
"This is not one that’s going to hit the coast and pass quickly," he said. "I don’t know that we’ve had anything like that in anyone’s memory — that could even lead to mudslides."
As of Thursday morning, more than 2,200 people had been evacuated from 113 health care facilities in the coastal evacuation zones, which include assisted living and nursing homes, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Seven hospitals, mostly along the Grand Strand, have closed. Eight hospitals in the Charleston area, including the Medical University of South Carolina, received waivers to stay open and continue treating patients, the agency said.
There's no estimate for when evacuees can return.
"We don't know exactly where the flooding's going to be. The event itself will go into next week, then we'll look and when you can go back home, so it's going to be awhile," said Adjutant General Bob Livingston, head of the state National Guard.
About 450 law enforcement officers will help secure homes left behind, said State Law Enforcement Chief Mark Keel.
The military is also on standby to help.
The Navy has designated two ships — the U.S.S. Kearsarge and U.S.S. Arlington, which carries Marines — to assist South Carolina's recovery efforts, Lt. Cmdr. Brian Wierzbicki, a Navy spokesman, told The Post and Courier on Thursday.
They are among 30 ships diverted south from Naval Station Norfolk earlier this week to keep them out of Hurricane Florence's path, Wierzbicki said. He could not give the ships' specific location, but they're south of South Carolina.
"They have to avoid the storm as well. After the storm passes, they'll be in position," he said. However, he added, the Federal Emergency Management Agency must officially request the help first.
During Wednesday's briefing, McMaster asked Livingston whether the ship's placement represented a first for South Carolina.
"Yes, governor, this is the first time we’ve had those ships off shore," Livingston said. "It’s a great asset."
Wierzbicki could not confirm it's a first for anything. The Navy regularly assists in the aftermath of hurricanes, he said.
"This is normal procedure," he said. "We do this all the time."