FOLLY BEACH, S.C. — South Carolina’s largest evacuation in at least 17 years started Wednesday as hundreds of thousands of people began making their way inland from Hilton Head Island, Beaufort and Charleston to avoid Hurricane Matthew.
In addition to those areas, Gov. Nikki Haley said she plans to order an evacuation of Horry and Georgetown counties at noon Thursday if the hurricane’s forecast track does not change.
In all, about 500,000 people may be ordered to leave their homes — more than 10 percent of the state’s population.
Here’s a look at precautions state officials are taking in advance of the storm’s arrival:
Troopers turned the eastbound lanes of Interstate 26 from Charleston to Columbia into inland evacuation lanes for the first time ever. The plan was put into place after evacuations during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 turned a typical two-hour trip from Charleston to Columbia into an up-to-24-hour ordeal.
Haley said Tuesday that she was going to order evacuations along the entire South Carolina coast. But the storm slowed and forecasts showed it hooking out to sea farther south, prompting her to delay evacuations for Georgetown and Horry counties until Thursday.
“Because the storm changed we are changing with the storm,” Haley said.
Officers did a rolling roadblock on I-26’s eastbound lanes starting at Interstate 77, closing each entrance to the highway so the lanes could be reversed. At least one lane on U.S. 278 off of Hilton Head Island and U.S. 21 out of Beaufort was also being reversed.
Troopers are considering reversing lanes on highways around Myrtle Beach too.
The lane reversals will remain until at least Friday morning, Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said.
People can still drive to those places before the hurricane threatens, but they have to take two-lane back roads and may not be able to go wherever they want, authorities said.
Haley’s evacuation order Wednesday covers all of Beaufort County and most of Jasper County east of Interstate 95. It also covers almost all of Charleston County, along with low-lying parts of Berkeley, Dorchester and Colleton counties, especially areas closer to Charleston and Beaufort.
The evacuation order Thursday will likely include all of Georgetown and Horry counties, from U.S. Highway 17 to the ocean except for some higher elevation areas of Myrtle Beach.
South Carolina no longer has voluntary or mandatory evacuations. And officials can’t order anyone to leave. But they are saying they may not be able to help anyone who stays behind and finds themselves in trouble.
“We do not want you to stay. You may not receive assistance in the middle of the storm,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said.
All decisions, from evacuation orders, to lane reversals, to canceling school across half the state for the rest of the week are evaluated by the governor and her team daily, Haley said.
But as long as South Carolina remains in the National Hurricane Center’s Matthew forecast cone , the governor said she will act with utmost caution to protect people.
Forecasts for the storm earlier Wednesday showed the hurricane taking an abrupt turn out to sea off Hilton Head Island. Later forecasts showed the storm perhaps hugging the coastline Saturday.
“We’ve been through a roller coaster of emotions today watching that,” Haley said.
The state is mobilizing help from a number of places. About 300 school buses from Greenville County headed to Charleston County to evacuate people without cars.
Around 1,500 South Carolina National Guard soldiers were helping with traffic and hurricane preparation.
And Charleston opened nearly all its parking garages to people free of charge through the weekend who wanted a higher spot in which to park their vehicles.
Associated Press writers Jeffrey Collins and Jack Jones in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.