CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Tri-County emergency officials are urging people to leave now ahead of Hurricane Irma's potential landfall to avoid heavy traffic jams caused by evacuees from Florida.
Former Charleston County Emergency Management Department Operations Chief Cathy Haynes warned that if the storm continues on the current track, Charleston would be in the "worst part of the storm."
"Please leave now," Haynes said, echoing the words of former Charleston County Council Member Linda Lombard, who gave that memorable emphatic warning to residents in September 1989 when Hurricane Hugo was headed for Charleston. Haynes recently retired from her role, but Charleston County officials say she agreed to step back in to help out in this type of situation.
"I know it sounds like doom and gloom but if that's what it takes to make people leave and be safe then I don't mind saying it," Haynes said.
Haynes said there will be five shelters open in Charleston County that can house 2,500 people, but she said going to a shelter should be your last priority. She said CARTA buses will be available to pick up people who aren't able to drive to shelters.
Red Cross spokesperson Louise Welch said residents who plan to go to a shelter should bring their own sleeping bag.
Charleston County Council Chairman Vic Rawl said those who choose not to leave may be playing Russian Roulette. He said a curfew could be issued at some point.
"My point is if you do not take advantage of the opportunity to leave, you're making the mistake, you make a mistake that could cost the safety and or injury to your family," Rawl said.
Officials said until power is restored, residents might not be allowed back to their homes after the storm has passed.
Charleston County moved to OPCON 3 Thursday.
Berkeley County Director of Emergency Services Dan Barb said the county would declare a state of emergency at 3 p.m. and said he expected their emergency operations center to move to OPCON 1 on Saturday.
"Life safety is our main priority and we want like Cathy said it very well, you got to have a plan, you got to make a decision got to make it soon," Barb said.
Dorchester County Councilman Jay Byars said the county would declare a state of emergency for the county effective at 5 p.m. Thursday.
He encouraged residents to either leave now or have a safety plan in place if they intend to stay.
The three counties each launched non-emergency numbers to handle resident questions:
- Charleston County: 843-746-3900
- Berkeley County: 843-719-4800
- Dorchester County: 843-832-0393
This is a developing story. Check back for udpates.