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Eastbound lanes of Interstate 26 were opened Tuesday morning to westbound traffic during an evacuation in the Charleston area for Hurricane Florence. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Can I stay, or must I go?

It's a question that has popped up on social media this week and in conversations at Charleston-area stores where people plucked bread and water from shelves.

With powerful Hurricane Florence looming, Gov. Henry McMaster on Monday ordered the "mandatory, not voluntary, but mandatory" evacuation of most parts of South Carolina's eight coastal counties. It went into effect at noon Tuesday, and an Emergency Alert System message buzzed on cellphones at about 3 p.m. saying residents must leave.

That's 1 million people faced with buttoning up their properties, packing up and leaving town. That's hundreds of businesses shuttering their doors and thousands of employees out of work for days.

It's the second time in three years that an evacuation has been ordered for the Charleston area under threat of a hurricane. And for the second time, many people will ignore it without fear of being thrown in jail.

Though a state law doesn't use the word "mandatory," a state law gives the governor power to declare an emergency, then "direct and compel" an evacuation if it's needed to save lives or aid response. "Technically," the governor explained, it's mandatory.

That law, though, does not prescribe penalties for disobeying the order. With authorities busy preparing for the storm, they likely won't be knocking on doors and arresting people who refuse to leave.

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Gov. Henry McMaster and Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall watch traffic on interstates 20 and 26 as evacuees leave the coast Tuesday afternoon. Eastbound lanes are reversed on Interstate 26, allowing all traffic to flow from Charleston to Columbia. Seanna Adcox/Staff 

But officials in South Carolina did offer a possible consequence: death.

Though the Charleston region did not sit in the forecast path when the order was issued, Florence is unpredictable, the governor said. With the storm forecast to be one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the Carolinas since Hugo in 1989, McMaster acknowledged the measure's inconvenience but said it was necessary.

And on Tuesday, Florence appeared to move, at least slightly, from its initially expected track.

"We are in a very deadly ... game of chess with Hurricane Florence," McMaster said. "We don't want to gamble. ... You must go. (Becoming) a victim of the hurricane is one thing that might happen if you don't."

Few states actually make it a crime to disobey a governor's evacuation orders.

North Carolina's law on evacuations mirrors South Carolina's but tacks on a provision making it a misdemeanor to snub an order. Violators can face 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. For Florence, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued a mandatory evacuation for coastal areas Tuesday, a day after McMaster's announcement.

McMaster opted not to issue a broad evacuation for Tropical Storm Irma last year. In 2016, then-Gov. Nikki Haley ordered one for Hurricane Matthew, whose eye grazed the Charleston County coast.

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Eastbound lanes of Interstate 26 were opened to westbound traffic during an evacuation in the Charleston area for Hurricane Florence on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

When asked Tuesday, McMaster stopped short of threatening residents with arrest if they stayed put.

Former S.C. Attorney General Charlie Condon recalled Hugo, when some people were arrested for refusing to obey police officers' orders. State law makes it a misdemeanor punishable with 30 days behind bars to disregard an officer's lawful commands during an emergency.

"But what has happened over the years," Condon said, "it's called mandatory, but there's no enforcement."

McMaster said that if you see storm surge inundate your home, it was your choice to be there and witness it.

Charleston County Council Chairman Vic Rawl said coastal residents who don't evacuate were "basically inviting suicide."

And Jim Lake, director of Charleston County's 911 services, said first responders might be delayed in reaching people at the height of the storm. In those cases, dispatchers might tell 911 callers that nobody can rescue them. Dispatchers would call back later as conditions subside and ask if the callers still need help.

"Even though we would like everyone to follow the governor's order and evacuate," Lake said Tuesday during a news conference, "we know that some people will not."

Facebook and Twitter users in the Lowcountry expressed confusion over the order. Many looked at the National Hurricane Center's forecast track, which anticipated the storm's eye bowling over the coastline to the north — anywhere between the Grand Strand and the Outer Banks.

But federal forecasters noted the unpredictability of the storm's route once it nears shore. And historical data show that the forecast track has been wrong one-third of the time.

As the questions abounded, the S.C. Emergency Management Division tweeted in all capital letters that residents in coastal zones "MUST EVACUATE."

"Should I Evacuate?" stated North Charleston's government Twitter account. "When the Governor of the State declares an evacuation, we encourage everyone to evacuate."

Still, many people at places such as Costco and gas stations running low on fuel said they were going nowhere. Traffic on Interstate 26, which was open to outbound motorists only, was light Tuesday afternoon as the evacuation began.

McMaster canceled the order for parts of Jasper, Beaufort and Colleton counties that fell outside a hurricane watch issued earlier in the day. Edisto Beach in Colleton County, though, remained under the order.

"People need to be careful," the governor said. "Better to be safe than sorry."

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.