Hurricane Irma expected to intensify nearing Florida but spare South Carolina its worst effects

NNA – After its deadly charge through the Caribbean, Hurricane Irma cut into Cuba on its way Saturday to a devastating collision in Florida, its spinning bands carrying 160 mph winds and its likely path forcing millions of people from Florida to South Carolina to seek shelter before it was too late.

Already among the strongest hurricanes on record, Irma was expected to cut through the Straits of Florida and make a northward turn. That would take its eye through the narrow Florida Keys, but its massive wind field was expected to create a swath of destruction equal or greater to 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.

This northerly path was bad news for Floridians but brought many in South Carolina a sense of relief. The day before, forecasters had predicted the storm would slice through Florida, cut up the east coast of Florida and plunge deep into Georgia or South Carolina.

Now, the main threat here is coastal flooding from the likely combination of high seasonal tides and Irma’s rain.

Still, Irma’s oscillations Friday put emergency officials here in a difficult position: Order evacuations or wait until the forecast was clearer. The delay came in part because the storm could still trigger a surge in the Charleston area.

Gov. Henry McMaster wrestled with a decision for two days, twice delaying a verdict before opting late Friday evening to order an evacuation of barrier islands in Colleton, Jasper and Beaufort counties, the most populated being Hilton Head Island. Potential lane reversals would be limited to those areas as well and left to the discretion of local and state law enforcement, he said.

McMaster couldn’t say how many people his order would affect.

McMaster said officials will continue monitoring the storm and may opt for another course of action if conditions change and circumstances warrant. But for the decision to stay or go in most areas of the state will be a personal one for residents to make. Still, he urged residents: “Now is the time to plan if you haven’t done so.”

Emboldened by improving forecasts for the region, many in the Charleston area had begun to lean toward staying rather than face the frustrating prospect of being stuck in traffic gridlock getting out.

But Cathy Haynes with Charleston County Emergency Management urged the public to stay alert and prepare for the worst. The storm’s track could still change, she said.

“Please do not let your guard down. We are not out of the woods,” Haynes said.

Lixion Avila, a National Hurricane Center specialist, said Irma would bring heavy rain to South Carolina that could trigger flash floods.

And this rain may arrive at a time of unusually high tides Sunday and Monday midday. National Weather Service forecasters in Charleston predict Sunday’s tide could reach 8 feet, a height that floods low-lying areas even without rain. And Monday’s tide is expected to be even higher.

Tides at 8 feet also can undermine properties as well as exacerbate erosion.

Meantime, South Carolina’s roadways were jammed Friday with early evacuees from the Lowcountry and storm refugees from Georgia and Florida. At his afternoon news conference, McMaster asked residents not to hoard gasoline so Florida and Georgia evacuees could fill up.

A coastal flood advisory has been issued for Friday night as waves start rising from Hurricane Irma. Major coastal flooding is expected as the storm closes in this weekend.

The Savannah River and western portions of the state are still in jeopardy of the core of a weakening storm passing directly over them. The National Hurricane Center’s 11 p.m. update called for Irma to move north through Florida and weaken in Georgia, though parts of South Carolina could see tropical storm-force winds.

The eye of the storm on Friday afternoon was between Cuba and the Bahamas. The spread of its hurricane-force winds reached as far as the central Bahamas.

The Hurricane Center left open the possibility that the fierce storm — now spinning slightly stronger 160 mph winds — would curve eastward of the Florida peninsula. That would keep it over Atlantic Ocean waters during an approach toward a second landfall in Georgia.

“There is a chance of direct impacts in portions of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, but it is too early to specify the magnitude and location of these impacts,” hurricane specialist Jack Beven said.

Even if the forecast track holds, it’s still difficult to pin down what would happen in South Carolina, said meteorologist James Carpenter of the National Weather Service in Charleston. If it does remain unchanged, some of the state could would see tropical storm or hurricane force winds at 40 mph or stronger.

Rain would start and winds would begin to rise late Sunday or early Monday with the worst of it later Monday into Tuesday.

The National Weather Service in Charleston called for breezy conditions and a chance of rain Saturday into Sunday. The real mess comes Sunday night, heavy rains and winds gusting at more than 30 mph. Tropical storm conditions are possible Monday, according to the forecast.

“A lot of rain, flooding, and there’s still the potential for significant storm surge,” Carpenter said. —Post and Courier

=============== R.K.

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