Flood waters remain on Gordon Street

Twins Patrick and Cullen Asher, 11, play Tuesday in the flood waters on Gordon Street in Charleston's Wagener Terrace neighborhood as their mother, Julie Lynch, checks on the family's rental home. Glenn Smith/Staff

Gov. Henry McMaster said Tuesday that he considered the potential economic impacts of an evacuation when he chose not to order residents to leave downtown Charleston before Tropical Storm Irma surged into the Holy City.

Charleston also has more access routes than barrier islands, McMaster said, making it less likely that its people would be trapped by rising water. The city is a hotspot for tourists worldwide, but it has a tendency to flood during rainstorms.

After Irma's tide, the third-highest on record for Charleston Harbor, spilled onto city streets and into some homes Monday, at least 30 people were rescued in the downtown area, officials said. It caused more widespread flooding than Hurricane Matthew last year, when then-Gov. Nikki Haley ordered the evacuation of 1.1 million from coastal areas.

"A lot of thought went into that" decision not to evacuate, McMaster said. "Of course, Charleston is not an island. It's a peninsula, so it's a lot easier to get off."

Ultimately, McMaster said, the option of warning people about forecast storm surge of up to 6 feet, rather than issuing a mandatory evacuation order, "was the right way to do it."

"Evacuating an entire city is something you have to take great, great caution doing," he said, "because there's a lot of economic impact for such a thing."

But as the waters started to recede Monday night, city officials urged visitors to consider steering clear of downtown areas so authorities and cleanup crews could do their work. 

Some residents managed to leave their homes as the floodwater subsided. City spokesman Jack O'Toole said the final number of people rescued was bound to rise from the preliminary figure of at least 30. 

"I think the governor made the right call, given the westward shift of the hurricane," Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said at a news conference Tuesday.

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Stephanie Thomas and Bryan Bryant and daughter Ella Grace came to the end of Center Street in Mount Pleasant to see the effects from Tropical Storm Irma on Monday, September 11, 2017. Wade Spees/Staff

Some people in Charleston neighborhoods said they were less concerned about Irma because there had been no evacuation order. Nance Pence of Columbia told CNN that several feet of water poured into a loved one’s downtown house, and the home's contents started floating.

“We had a false sense of security because we weren’t asked to evacuate,” she told CNN. "Things started collapsing. … We actually had to call 911.”

Rescuers pulled them through a window.

Tecklenburg said he would have supported an evacuation if the storm had kept a South Carolina-bound heading over the Atlantic Ocean, but forecasters announced a shift of Irma over Florida, allaying some concerns.

"I do think we need a little Monday-morning quarterbacking when we talk about what happens when we don't have evacuations," he said.

As early as Thursday, even with the more favorable forecast, Charleston officials had urged residents in flood-prone areas to consider leaving. Staffers also went door to door, notifying vulnerable populations. That effort included contact with homeless people and residents in the city’s public housing units.

Residents also were encouraged to gather emergency supplies and review evacuation routes.

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John Harlesten went to the Pitt Street Bridge in Mount Pleasant to experience the effects from Tropical Storm Irma on Monday, September 11, 2017. Wade Spees/Staff

"At this point," Tecklenburg said Saturday, "we anticipate significant storm surge and flooding, especially downtown, on Monday and Tuesday. So if you’re in a low-lying area or your home has flooded in the past, consider making arrangements to stay with friends or family."

Shelters also opened Sunday, giving residents another option. But if anything could have been done anything differently, Tecklenburg said Tuesday that he would have liked Charleston County's shelters to have opened sooner than the day before the storm hit.

Concerned about the storm's impact despite a prospective route that would take its eye 200 miles to the west, officials in the Lowcountry's coastal communities discussed evacuation plans with the governor late last week.

Edisto Beach Mayor Jane Darby said she and other mayors pressed for a mandatory evacuation, and she felt Irma’s destruction proved that was the right call. Storm surge inundated much of the Colleton County town, filling its streets with water and sand.

“You would rather have egg on your face than one person lose their life,” she said. “I’m sure Gov. McMaster feels the same way.”

Most of the people in the town of 400 left.

"All I could do was to do what in my heart of hearts was right for Edisto," Darby said. "I expressed my concerns, and fortunately, (state officials) listened.”

Brian Symmes, a spokesman for the governor, said Tuesday that the ultimate decision emerged from close collaboration with such local officials. He said authorities were thankful that most residents heeded warnings and took measures to prepare or get out. There were no reports of injuries because of surging water, he noted.

"The governor always makes the decision (to evacuate) in close consultation with local (emergency management) officials and acts upon their requests and recommendations," Symmes said. "There are a number of considerations, the most important being the safety and well-being of South Carolinians."

Andy Shain and Robert Behre contributed to this report.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede.

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.