Myrtle Beach

“I remember Hugo — and I lived in New York for Hugo," said Heather Iorio, who was scouting for shark teeth on a largely deserted oceanfront in Myrtle Beach on Wednesday, September 12, 2018. “This storm’s a little scary,” added the now 18-year Grand Strand resident. Wade Spees/Staff

MYRTLE BEACH — Except for the oncoming hurricane, Wednesday was a great day to go to the beach.

The sun was shining on South Carolina's Grand Strand, a vacation destination for an estimated 18 million people every year and the state's most lucrative tourist destination. A few stragglers walked the sand, maybe the last fair-weather opportunity they would get before Hurricane Florence blows into the area.

Most people had already headed the other direction.  

"We're looking at maybe two days' worth of hurricane-strength weather," said Mark Kruea, a spokesman for the city of Myrtle Beach. "That's not a thrill ride I want to be on."

The majority of the state's coastline was under an evacuation order starting at noon Tuesday. For the most part, the denizens of Myrtle Beach seemed to take the warning seriously, and a weather forecast that inched the storm's path closer and closer was enough encouragement for most people to leave and many businesses to shutter. The National Hurricane Center projected that Florence could make landfall in the Grand Strand by early Saturday. 

Ocean Boulevard, the central strip, was largely empty, save for the occasional utility truck or last-minute tourist buzzing by on a moped. The gondolas had already been removed from the city's iconic SkyWheel.

"Stay safe. Possessions can be replaced," read the sign at Myrtle Beach's 2nd Avenue Pier. 

Those who had chosen to stay were searching for a reference point by which to gauge the threat of Florence. Hugo, the 1989 hurricane that remains the strongest storm to make landfall in the Palmetto State in recent decades, hit farther down the coast. Hazel, a vicious 1954 storm, was more directly devastating as it leveled beachfront homes in present-day North Myrtle Beach and battered the coast with winds that reached 150 mph. It also prompted redevelopment that modernized the Myrtle Beach area.

But Florence is projected to dump inches and inches — possibly feet — of rain as it slowly cuts its way across the Carolinas, a different kind of danger that could affect a far broader area.

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With Hurricane Florence looming off the coast, Myrtle Beach was uncharacteristically quiet Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

At a Waffle House in Murrells Inlet, Trey Bryant offered two men refills of sweet tea.

The men, fresh from securing their boats with extra straps as Florence approached, were leaving town Wednesday. Bryant was not.

Bryant, 24, has worked at the restaurant for six years and has seen its doors close only once: in 2016, when Hurricane Matthew knocked out the power and started blowing down the ceiling tiles.

The federal government has said in recent years that whether a Waffle House shuts down is a fair measure of how badly a community is affected by a natural disaster.

And for Bryant, times like these mean good money, he said, as he swiped some utensils and menus for more diners walking through the door. The people coming in had few other options for a hot meal.

“My girlfriend said, ‘You’re not panicking?’ ” Bryant said. “Nope. I don’t see a point in panicking. What’s going to happen is going to happen.”

The waiter grew up in Florence, a South Carolina city of nearly 40,000 people 70 miles from the Grand Strand and the center of the state's Pee Dee region. He has fled there for past storms that have spiraled by, leaving little damage in their wake.

Not this time.

“Like, really, why does this hurricane have to be called Florence?” he said of the storm sharing his hometown’s name. “Now it’s really going to hit us.”

In storm-weary areas like Georgetown's Front Street, which has flooded during tropical systems and severe thunderstorms for the past three years, many businesses had already boarded up. 

Storm damage will "definitely stir a little bit of money up," John Etheridge, an employee of Baker's Glass and Mirror, said as he boarded up the windows of a women's clothing store. But, he said, "even though it'll be money in my pocket, I don't want to see it." 

Etheridge had his own home to worry about, about a mile away. 

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WEB ONLY Georgetown

“I'd like to see the boat when I come back here again,” said Chuck Richardson, as he secured it along Georgetown's Historic Waterfront on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

On Georgetown's historic waterfront, Chuck Richardson was looping almost $600 worth of extra rope around his boat to try to tie it more securely to a piling in the harborwalk. He had owned the vessel, still unnamed, for only five months. 

"I just hope it's still my boat when it's done," he said

Richardson said his neighbors told him not to worry two years ago when Hurricane Matthew approached the coast because it was "just a Category 1." It still destroyed the dock in his backyard, on Winyah Bay. 

Not everyone was anxious about the coming storm. 

Diane Farrington, a Massachusetts native who lives in Surfside Beach, was taking the day to enjoy the beach. She waited to buy her house until after Matthew, to make sure it could make it through a storm. 

Farrington previously spent 15 years in the Florida Keys, with so many storms coming through she didn't remember the names of all of them. Her dad was still there, and he had to live in a car for two months after Hurricane Irma. 

But she didn't see the use in panicking.

"I have friends who've been running around like chickens with their heads cut off for three days," she said. "Why?"

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Surfside Beach bar and grill boarded up

While the vast majority of businesses, including hotels, are closed in the Myrtle Beach area, Neal & Pam’s Bar & Grill in Surfside Beach remained open. But the windows were boarded up. Wade Spees/Staff

Andrew Knapp is editor of the quick response team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.