Sanford: Voluntary evacuation advisories only as Ernesto degrades

CHARLESTON — As Tropical Storm Ernesto spun across Florida with a second projected landfall looming on the South Carolina coast, officials urged residents Wednesday to take advantage of a sunny, clear day to prepare.

In a noon news conference, Gov. Mark Sanford said only coastal voluntary evacuations for the Charleston area and Edisto Island are in place, and some shelters will be open in those areas.

However, Sanford said state agencies and National Guard troops remain on alert in the event the storm gains strength upon leaving Florida and traveling toward Charleston over open water.

"This storm is not here yet," he said.

The governor said orders to shut down moveable bridges have been pushed back as the storm abated. The S.C. State Ports Authority said its gates would remain open until 5 p.m. today for the pick-up and delivery of loads only.

A hurricane watch was in effect for Charleston County, said Leon Stavrinakis, chairman of the county council, this morning.

"We want people to take advantage of this time they have today to prepare themselves and their families," he said.

The storm weakened as expected as it tracked across the east coast of Florida today.

It was not expected to make landfall in South Carolina until Thursday afternoon or evening, but forecasters were uncertain about the storm's track and strength after it emerges from Florida and enters the Atlantic Ocean.

On Tuesday, Gov. Mark Sanford urged residents to prepare, not panic.

"It's important not to alarm folks. This is not a major storm at this point," he told reporters in the building that houses the Charleston County emergency operations center.

A hurricane watch was issued late Tuesday for all of the South Carolina coast and as far north as Cape Fear, N.C. An inland tropical storm watch was in effect for Berkeley and Dorchester counties, the National Weather Service in Charleston said.

A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours.

Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley counties planned to open shelters for residents of low-lying areas, mobile homes or beachfront areas who wanted to voluntarily evacuate.

Charleston County schools operated on a shortened schedule Wednesday although officials made no immediate decision about closing Thursday.

"It looks like rain is going to be more of the issue, especially with it hitting around high tide," said Lisa Bourcier, a spokeswoman for Horry County on the northern end of the coast.

At 8 a.m., maximum sustained winds had dropped to 40 mph. Ernesto was moving north at 8 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. The center was located 75 miles southwest of West Palm Beach, Fla.

According to an advisory from the National Weather Service in Charleston, Ernesto could become a strong tropical storm before making landfall. The advisory said tropical storm force winds could start raking the south coast early Thursday and could be felt as far west as Interstate 95.

"Tropical storm force winds are nothing to laugh at," Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said. "A 65-mph wind or gust ... is substantial. It may not be a hurricane although what happens when it leaves the coast of Florida and gets out on the Atlantic no one can be certain."

Jack and Diane Broderick, who live on Hobe Sound, near West Palm Beach, Fla., stopped on their way to the North Carolina mountains on their annual trip north to avoid the Florida hurricane season.

They've weathered three storms in recent years and saw little comfort that Ernesto might make landfall as only a tropical storm.

"Here we go again," Diane Broderick said. "Wilma (last year) was headed at us as a tropical storm and it ended up doing the most damage to our house."