HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — As Hurricane Matthew swirled toward South Carolina, officials up and down the coast warned the situation has turned worse with the storm now expected to trace the state’s coastline over the next 24 hours bringing hurricane-force winds, torrential rains, dangerous storm surge and widespread power outages.
“There is nothing safe about what is getting ready to happen” Gov. Nikki Haley warned Friday as she made a last plea for those on the coast to evacuate and follow the lead of those who have already headed inland.
From Hilton Head Island to Myrtle Beach residents braced for the storm whose center, according to National Hurricane Center projections, was expected to be just off Charleston Saturday morning as a Category 2 hurricane with 100 mph winds. Beaufort County set a dusk to dawn curfew and Charleston imposed a curfew from midnight Friday through 6 a.m. Saturday.
Mayor John Tecklenburg reassured Charlestonians that after days of watching, Matthew will soon be past. He said Charleston has shown its resilience time and time again throughout its history and in the face of disaster and struggle, the city is at its best.
“It’s time for us to hunker down and ride out this storm,” he said.
Haley said during an evening news conference that an estimated 355,000 people had fled from coastal areas. She said the time to prepare was over and ended her session with reporters by saying “now is the time we ask for prayer” and asking a chaplain to pray.
About 50,000 customers lost power by late Friday. Most of them were in Beaufort and Charleston counties. Utility crews were on standby to start restoring electricity as soon as the winds died down.
Edgar Putnam was pretty sure he was going to ride out Hurricane Matthew in his boxy vacation home on the tip of St. Helena Island, fully aware of predictions that sea water pushed onshore by the storm should inundate the island.
“There is something of a sense of adventure to it,” Putnam said as he worked to make final preparations to his home and several boats. “But I’m still thinking and looking at things. You don’t want to risk your life.”
Several other people could be seen driving around the island Friday morning, which was the site of South Carolina’s worst hurricane disaster. The Sea Islands storm of 1893 brought 125 mph winds and up to 14 feet of water. About 2,000 residents, mostly poor blacks, drowned.
The National Hurricane Center is predicting up to 6 feet of storm surge on parts of St. Helena Island with this hurricane with almost no part of the island just east of Beaufort staying dry.
Putnam said his neighbor told him he can ride out the storm in his home, which is elevated on stilts about 8 feet above the ground.
“My main worry is getting back,” said Putnam, a real estate appraiser in Columbia. “In Hugo, it was more than a week before we could return and that created a lot of problems.”
Leigh Webber was out Friday morning under gray skies in a steady breeze walking along the Charleston Battery seawall.
She pays a lot of attention to reports on hurricanes – Facebook, the Weather Channel, Mike’s Weather Page on the internet – and says she watched Matthew closely. And while she was a bit worried, she was not worried enough to leave.
“Three out of four made me feel OK but then there’s always one panic-stricken comment, you know, that made me feel like maybe we should leave,” the 41-year-old photographer said.
She plans to ride out the storm with her husband and son.
She lives in an area of the city that’s not too prone to flooding and added while she’s a little worried “it floods even when it doesn’t rain here, just from the high tide.”
Charleston’s historic district was eerily quiet Friday with stores and homes boarded up.
“It’s been interesting enjoying Charleston when it’s been so empty the past few days,” she said.
Bruce Smith contributed to this report from Charleston, South Carolina