CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - A large digital screen alongside a major highway running into Charleston, South Carolina, issued a stark warning to residents on Wednesday: ‘HURRICANE DORIAN, LEAVE NOW.”
A large number of people had already heeded that warning, as could be seen at busy gasoline stations on the city’s outskirts.
At one, drivers lined up calmly for snacks and fuel ahead of a journey inland.
“We’ve seen many worse storms than Dorian over the years, but we figured we wouldn’t take any chances, so we’re going to stay with family away from the coast,” said George Wilson, 42, as he waited to buy candy and chocolate for his children.
But while tens of thousands of residents had decided to evacuate, many others in Charleston were choosing to ride out the storm.
Dorian has devastated parts of the Bahamas and killed at least seven people, where the scope of the destruction was still coming into focus on Wednesday.
The storm’s wind speeds dropped on Tuesday to make it a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale. It maintained that level on Wednesday, but forecasters warned it was still dangerous.
South Carolina officials said they were expecting storm surges of 4 to 8 feet (1.2 to 2.4 metres) and wind gusts of 90 miles per hour (145 kph) on Thursday, and told people to evacuate the coast as Dorian drew closer.
Business owners and residents were busy boarding up shops on Wednesday in Charleston’s historic district, but said they were used to doing so as hurricanes have become such a regular occurrence here.
“This has pretty much become an annual ritual for us,” said Micah Elliott, co-founder of Charleston Built, who has boarded up about 15 homes and businesses for clients.
Elliot was helping Kevin Leprince, 48, a local artist, board up his art gallery in the historic district. Leprince said his gallery should be safe from the storm surge, but he was worried that flooding from the expected heavy rain could damage his artwork.
Closer to the waterfront, Mark Huske was placing sandbags along the windows of an architect’s office. Huske said that if the storm surge hit as expected, it would flood the office.
“It’s going to get very messy down here,” he said. “I honestly don’t know why anyone would buy a house down here. It’s pretty much guaranteed to flood.”
A crowd of tourists and local residents strolled along the Charleston waterfront, unfazed by the intermittent rain, taking photographs and cheering dolphins that surfaced in the Ashley River.
Danny Davis and his wife, Octavia, stood under a large umbrella enjoying the view on the waterfront and said that other than buying extra water and supplies, they had made few major preparations for Dorian.
“We’ve seen much bigger than this. Dorian is going to be nothing special,” Danny Davis said.
Charleston has suffered damage from a number of storms over the years, including flooding from Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and a major battering from Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
The owners of Ink & Ivy, a bar in the historic district, decided to stay open throughout Dorian. The bar was busy on Wednesday afternoon and bartender Gregory Wilder, 41, said he expected a good crowd for the evening.
“We’re going to stay here and party no matter what happens,” he said. “Unless the power goes out.”
Charleston city spokesman Jack O’Toole said the city now faced “a triple threat, from wind, the storm surge and flooding.”
“It may be too late for people to evacuate,” O’Toole said. “So our message to residents now is to batten down the hatches and be prepared for the worst.”
Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Peter Cooney