Forecasters say South Carolina could see effects of Irene

A boat pelted by Hurricane Irene's heavy winds near the US Virgin Islands.
A boat pelted by Hurricane Irene's heavy winds near the US Virgin Islands.

Charleston, SC (AP) - State and coastal emergency agencies went on alert Monday as forecasters projected that Hurricane Irene could become the first hurricane to hit South Carolina in seven years.

"This is potentially a very serious hurricane," said longtime Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. He led Charleston's recovery from the massive destruction of Hurricane Hugo's 135 mph winds and waves back in 1989.

Riley called his staff together early Monday to discuss preparations for the storm.

"Hurricanes are unpredictable but this current track takes it in our direction so everyone should take it very seriously," he said.

In Columbia, the State Emergency Management Division went on increased alert, notifying key state agencies to review their hurricane preparedness plans and to be on call.

Charleston County has also increased its readiness. Officials, warning there is the possibility of an emergency or disaster, put county employees who deal with emergencies on call.

A late afternoon advisory from the National Hurricane Center projected that Irene, the Atlantic season's first hurricane, could make landfall Saturday near the South Carolina-North Carolina state line as a major hurricane with winds of more than 110 mph. However, there can be discrepancies of several hundred miles in projecting a storm path so far in advance.

The last hurricane to hit the South Carolina coast was in 2004, the busiest season on record in the state. That year, seven named storms affected South Carolina and two hurricanes made landfall between Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

Joe Farmer of the state Emergency Management Division said he's not worried about complacency this time. "If it does move this way there will be a lot of public notice given and people will be warned," he said.

"I'm not worried about that," Riley agreed. "Our people are wise, but I think it's important we remind them just how dangerous a hurricane can be."

Officials said residents should get together hurricane kits and think about where they will evacuate if it comes to that. Any evacuation would have to be ordered by Gov. Nikki Haley, who would wait until it was more certain the storm would make landfall in the state.

Farmer said state emergency officials were in contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Monday. Horry County officials expected to decide whether to go on higher alert late Monday or Tuesday, said Carissa Medeiros, the county's assistant emergency management director.

"We don't want to be too pre-emptive and just have it continue to walk up the coast," she said, adding local officials have to balance keeping people safe against the loss to businesses by warning people away too early.

The hurricane center's forecasts showed how quickly meteorologists' models can change. Earlier Monday, the projected track had the eye of the storm heading for south Georgia. Later, the projected path had moved up the coast to near Charleston while late in the day, it had moved even farther north to near the state line.

The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce received only a handful of calls Monday from tourists wondering whether they should change their vacation plans, said chamber spokeswoman Kimberly Miles.

Myrtle Beach is the heart of the state's $14 billion tourism industry. With most South Carolina schools open for the new school year, officials estimate occupancy along the beach is running about 80 percent this week.

Both individual counties and the state have extensive plans to deal with an approaching hurricane. Such plans include everything from where emergency shelters will be opened to reversing highway lanes to evacuate the coast.

During the past two years or so, state budget cuts have forced the state Emergency Management Agency to trim about a third of its staff. The agency has just under 60 employees.

"But we're confident we can use the employees we have to good advantage and deal with the situation," Farmer said.

Riley said Charleston has been able to expand the size of both its police and fire departments in recent years through federal grants.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.