Residents in Myrtle Beach and Horry County are ready to hit the highways as Hurricane Florence continues to bear down on the East Coast, threatening to hammer the area with strong winds, heavy surf and torrential rain.
Horry County emergency management officials are prepping residents on the four main evacuation routes for the beachside communities and tourist destinations just south of the North Carolina boarder.
The evacuation of the Myrtle Beach area was announced by Gov. Henry McMaster on Monday as part of statewide emergency response plan in advance of the oncoming hurricane. The evacuation will officially begin Tuesday afternoon with the hurricane expected to hit the coast late Thursday or early Friday.
Horry County officials have asked residents to use an online map to learn what roads and highways they need to use to head inland toward Interstate 95. The exit plan for the county includes three evacuation zones. The route that people should take depends on where they live along the coast.
"If the evacuation is given in a timely manner, the roads will be crowded but people will have ample time to get out of here before the storm," said state Rep. Russell Fry, R-Surfside Beach. "I think everyone is taking this storm very seriously, and to the extent they are not, they need to."
There are more than 333,000 people living in Horry County, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census. That's more than two times the county population in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo smashed South Carolina, downing power lines, destroying bridges and smashing homes.
Since then, other evactuation routes have been added in Horry County and highways running to and from the coast have been expanded. Gina Vasselli, a spokeswoman for Horry County Emergency Management, said the exodus from Horry County is the first evacuation since Hurricane Matthew in 2016. But only part of the county was emptied for that storm, she said.
Even with four evacuation routes, Vasselli said it's likely to take more than a day to depopulate the homes, businesses and boardwalks near Myrtle Beach. "We are running those models now," she said. "It takes a considerable amount of time."
On the bright side, Vaselli said there aren't as many vacationers staying in the beach houses and hotels along Myrtle Beach as there was in July and August. That will drop the number of cars that will be jammed onto the highways, including Route 501 that will have traffic reversed on it.
It's still unclear exactly where the center of the storm will hit. But the size of the Category 4 hurricane ensures Myrtle Beach and the surrounding area will feel the effects of Florence, including heavy rain that is expected to be dropped on the coast and further inland.
Local officials are hoping that the local rivers and streams will be able to contain that downpour. They believe current water levels in the county's rivers will help, Vaselli said. That includes the Waccamaw River. According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, that river can rise more than three feet from its current level before it will begin to flood.
It's too soon to know if that is enough to hold back Florence.