Hurricane Irma evacuees are flooding into York County.
“The entire state of Florida needs all the prayers it can get. It’s wicked scary,” said Lily Seward of Deerfield Beach, Fla.
Seward stood in the parking lot at the Holiday Inn on Galleria Boulevard in Rock Hill. She and her children -- ages 3years old and 5 months -- arrived Wednesday. Seward, who has lived in Florida eight years, said this is the first hurricane evacuation in which they left the state.
During Hurricane Matthew last year, they went to Sarasota, Fla. But this time, “it’s a lot scarier and officials seemed more nervous because it’s a lot bigger.”
Deadly Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, hit the Caribbean Wednesday with heavy rain and record 185-mph winds. As of the 2 p.m. Friday, a National Hurricane Center advisory said Irma was still an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph, heading toward Florida.
“(Interstate) 95 was a parking lot,” she said. “When I finally broke 50 mph, I thought I was speeding.”
She is planning to head farther north to her native Vermont to stay with family, after S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency.
“There’s going to be damage to my home. How much, I don’t know,” she said.
Her husband is staying in Atlanta so he can return sooner to assess the damages, she said.
“It’s still going to be hard to find supplies down there, and with no AC or water, it’s easier to do cleaning without the children’s ‘help,’ and safer,” she said.
Dawn Gaffney of St. Augustine, Fla., and her family -- husband, mother and sleeping 2-year-old -- pulled in at Hampton Inn on Tabor Drive about noon Friday. As a 35-years Florida resident, she said they’ve weathered many storms and hurricanes.
“It’s been scary at times, but never like this,” she said, adding it’s the first time in 14 years they’ve closed the real estate office where she works.
“After last year, we’re taking it more seriously because that was really devastating,” she said. Their home had $2,000 worth of damage, “but our community was devastated.”
The Gaffneys took two days driving, on back roads, to Rock Hill, where they have family.
“It’s been quite peaceful,” she said. How long they’ll stay, she said is “til we can get back.”
The Heritage Conference Center in Fort Mill on Friday afternoon was welcoming 405 residents of The Cypress of Hilton Head retirement community.
“Last year, we welcomed 385 Cypress members in October,” said Erika Robinson, general manager at Heritage, referring to Hurricane Matthew, which battered South Carolina last year. “They stayed for 11 days. Now nearly a year later, we are geared up, and our staff is ready to welcome them back. It feels like a family reunion.”
Hotels in Rock Hill are seeing rooms filling up fast, with coming days of no vacancies.
“We’re sold out Saturday to Thursday,” said Israel Merchan on Friday of Comfort Suite on Old Springdal Road. “Most reservations ar running from the hurricane.”
He said a flurry of calls started Wednesday to book at the 77-room hotel.
Bonnie Whisenant, general manager of the recently renovated 91-room Wingate By Wyndham on Galleria Boulevard, said Friday they had no vacancy Sunday through Tuesday.
“We’ve been bombarded with calls the past couple days,” she said.
The hotel had been booked Friday and Sunday because of the Rock Hill Classic soccer tournament, but team cancellations opened rooms now being filled by evacuees. Whisenant said, some evacuees have already come and gone, traveling farther north.
Local hotels are familiar with hosting evacuees because of events like hurricanes. Whisenant said last year they couldn’t answer the phone fast enough for calls from residents on the South Carolina coast as Hurricane Matthew stormed in.
Cortney Peterson, director of sales for Hampton Inn, said the 163-room hotel, the largest in Rock Hill, was sold out for five days last year because of Hurricane Matthew. Many of those guests, she said, are planning to return this week. Plus, there’s an influx of guests from Florida, some coming in as early as Tuesday to avoid the heavy evacuation traffic.
On a typical Sunday, Peterson said, 30-40 rooms are booked. This Sunday there are 92 arrivals, she said. As of Friday, she said, there are still rooms available every day but it’s “very tight.”
Some Rock Hill hotels also are offering services specifically with evacuees in mind. Peterson said they may plan board game family nights.
Madison Norman of guest services with TownePlace Suites Marriott on Tabor Drive said they are not charging cancellation fees, while sister hotel Fairfield Inn & Suites Marriott is “allowing pets through this time,” said Korey Small, assistant general manager.
Small said even Rock Hill residents are offering to help should all the hotels have no vacancy.
“Some people are offering to open their homes in Rock Hill,” he said.
Catherine Muccigrosso: 803-329-4069