Many Myrtle Beach-area residents had been sick of waiting for Hurricane Florence to arrive, but when it did Friday, they saw the storm tear through signs, rip stoplights in half and send trees toppling on homes.

But many feared that the worst would come after the eye passes — trouble like road washouts on important arteries that could cut off parts of the Grand Strand.

The storm — which made landfall in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., and was later downgraded to a tropical storm — slowly made its way toward the South Carolina border Wednesday afternoon at 5 mph. 

The wait for Florence felt long to many on the Grand Strand. Some said the coastal evacuation order, in effect on Tuesday afternoon, was too early. Some had been ready since Monday, with homes stocked full of supplies. 

Some were underwhelmed by the storm itself, like Whitney Smith, who snapped pictures of two friends on Friday morning, on the stretch of sand near 12th Avenue North.

“I thought it was going to be (here) sooner,” she said.

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Russell Lewis of Myrtle Beach braces himself from a wind gust Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, on the beach two blocks from his home as Hurricane Florence inched southward toward South Carolina. Andrew Knapp/Staff

In the morning, winds on the southern side of the storm pushed the ocean out to sea, revealing a wide beach to the likes longtime residents had never seen.

Russell Lewis, who lives two blocks from Myrtle Beach, walked on the sand early Friday, bracing himself from occasional gusts as he gazed at shells and jellyfish that had washed ashore. The stretch of beach was about 50 yards broader than usual, he said.

"I didn't expect to see the ocean like this," said Lewis, his long hair and raincoat flapping wildly.

But, he said, "It's going to get bad."

And it did Friday.

But some of the worst threats from Florence may come in a slow-motion disaster over the next few days: rain that forecasters say could break state records and pose a challenge to workers as they try to mend the area's infrastructure.

'Last taste of freedom'

As morning daylight seeped through dark, fast-moving clouds, few people were on Myrtle Beach's Ocean Boulevard, the normally bustling thoroughfare now populated by deserted hotels, resorts and surf shops.

But state Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, took a stroll on the road on the city's south side, trying to complete his daily routine of walking 5 miles. He planned next to embed with emergency management officials.

“I looked out my window this morning and it looked windy, but it wasn’t raining yet,” he said. “I guess I’m getting my last taste of freedom.”

The rain arrived by mid-morning, and the wind picked up.

A sign for a pancake house near North Myrtle Beach shattered with a wind gust, strewing pieces across a nearby beachside community. A few miles to the north, a thick live oak tree splintered at its base and cracked the roof of a Cherry Grove mobile home on the way down. Awnings along Myrtle Beach's popular tourist strip toppled onto the sidewalks. 

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A man moves a large tree limb that downed power lines Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, as Hurricane Francis hit North Myrtle Beach's Cherry Grove community. Andrew Knapp/Staff

Power started failing on the north end of the Grand Strand, a stretch of popular beachside communities with more than 300,000 people. Most traffic signals on two important roads, U.S. Highway 17 and Kings Highway, were out. 

Horry County residents received an automatic phone call warning them that emergency response times would slow as conditions got too dangerous for personnel to drive. Police were still the most common presence in Myrtle Beach, though, and planned to stay on the street until the winds hit a sustained 50 mph.

Gusts peaked at 63 mph at Myrtle Beach International Airport. 

Only people like Lewis remained to ride out the storm.

Lewis said he wasn't concerned about the 4 to 6 feet of storm surge expected when the eye of Florence made its way southwestward on Saturday, bringing onshore winds that will push the Atlantic Ocean back toward the shoreline.

He's worried that a 70-foot tree might fall when the gusts strengthen. But he should stay dry, pointing to the dunes that the surge would have to climb before reaching his home.

Like Lewis, many of the people here who decided to ride out the storm just wanted Florence to finally come. And go.

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As wind from the edge of Hurricane Florence was picking up on Friday morning, Sept. 14, 2018, Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach was largely deserted except for a few who went for a quick look at the ocean — and then return. Wade Spees/Staff

Washouts

For residents eager to get back home — or simply for their power to be restored — Florence's massive capacity to drop water will make recovery difficult. 

The Waccamaw River, which runs through Conway, is expected to go past major flood stage Monday and approach a record crest of 17.9 feet by Wednesday, forecasters said.

Roads closer to Myrtle Beach are expected be washed out by storm surge and flooding.

The Grand Strand could see up to 25 inches of rain, which “will bring heavy flash flooding to those in low-lying areas" that could be deadly, said John Quagliariello, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

Extreme rainfall from another tropical system caused a mess near Myrtle Beach two years ago. As the remnants of Hurricane Matthew crossed into North Carolina in 2016, it dumped water into the river system that flows into the Pee Dee and Horry County, flooding the tiny town of Nichols and inundating vulnerable neighborhoods near Myrtle Beach. 

In Rosewood, a neighborhood near where the Waccamaw meets the Intracoastal Waterway, streets were covered with feet of water for weeks after Matthew. James Moore was barred by the National Guard from re-entering his home for 41 days after the flood. The water was filled with raw sewage from a malfunctioning pump station. 

Moore said he'd been prepared for the storm since Monday. Many people in the neighborhood decided to leave less than a day before the rain arrived. 

"I've ate all my fingernails. You try and be big and bold and say 'I've got this.' But," he said, and his voice trailed off.

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Rodney Louhoff, chief engineer at an oceanfront Holiday Inn in Myrtle Beach, braces against wind that was picking up from the outer edge of Hurricane Florence on Friday morning, Sept. 14, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

'We got this'

People who found their neighbors already in trouble Friday did their best to help. When a tree fell in front of an elderly couple's house on Beverly Street in Socastee, a group walked into the pelting rain, tied it to a truck and hauled it away. 

"Neighbors help each other here," said Anette Blevins, as she walked around picking up smaller branches. 

Nearby, Athens Italian Restaurant Pizzeria was still open — even without electricity — in case someone stumbled in from the rain, craving a slice. 

Georgia Carandola, the owner, echoed a sentiment that's been common among some in the Grand Strand: the evacuation order was premature.

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Even with power out, Michael Ekonomidis and his mother, Georgia Carandola, were trying to keep the entrance dry, save frozen food and still cook for customers on a gas grill at Athens Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria in Socastee as effects from the edge of Hurricane Florence arrived. Wade Spees/Staff

Carandola's shop has seen many hurricanes since it opened in 1986. Through all of them, including Hurricane Hugo, the tiny shop in a strip mall has stayed open, serving up pizza, wings, gyros and baklava.

For days, the shop was a madhouse, with long lines of people eager to pick up what might be their last hot meal for a while. The locals were grateful. 

"I had customers picking up tables, wiping off tables, (saying), 'We got this,' " she said. 

On Friday, few people lined up as squalls of rain and wind blew through. The shop had lost power by the afternoon but was still open — the ovens are powered with gas, and perishable ingredients placed on ice.

The doors were open wide, in part to let out some heat from the kitchen. Cardboard boxes that once transported romaine were spread on the front stoop, as a makeshift door mat. 

"The locals know us. They know we're going to be open," Carandola said.

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Richard Spencer emerges from his mobile home in North Myrtle Beach's Cherry Grove community to see the weather during Hurricane Florence's opening salvo Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, and to check on a generator he started after losing electricity. Spencer lives under tall live oak trees, and he feared that one would fall on his home. Andrew Knapp/Staff

'Still lucky'

In North Myrtle Beach, one of the northernmost beachside communities in South Carolina, Richard Spencer's mobile home went dark as wind howled through the half-dozen live oak trees that towered above.

Outside, tree limbs and garbage cans littered the road. Metal storm shutters that had blown off another home littered a neighbor's yard.

It was Spencer's 59th birthday Friday, and all he wanted was to keep his electricity as Florence finally hit his wooded Cherry Grove neighborhood. But he didn't get his wish.

He made the most of it. He powered up a generator, and his cable TV flickered back to life. His refrigerator buzzed on. A fan moved air around his home.

"I've got some bourbon," he said, "and lots of peanut butter and jelly."

Spencer's two Yorkies, Pebbles and Forrest Trump, scampered about, chasing a tennis ball.

One of the oak trees had fallen during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, carving a hole above his kitchen. He feared the same would happen during Florence.

"As long as my trailer doesn't get destroyed, it’ll be a great birthday," he said. "I feel like so far, I’m still lucky."

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A squirrel takes shelter from Hurricane Florence's rain and wind under the picnic tables of a closed ice cream shop in North Myrtle Beach as the storm finally reached the Grand Strand on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Andrew Knapp/Staff

Seanna Adcox contributed this report.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede. Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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.