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Hurricane Florence, now a category 4 hurricane, is currently expected to make landfall along the North Carolina coast. South Carolina officials are still on high alert given that the predicted path could change day-by-day.

Aiken is preparing to receive evacuees as Hurricane Florence, now a Category 4 hurricane, approaches the Carolinas.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster has ordered the closure of state offices and public schools in 26 counties – including Aiken County – ahead of Hurricane Florence's landfall.

The closings will go into effect Tuesday, McMaster said Monday afternoon during a hurricane update and briefing.

McMaster has ordered a mandatory evacuation of eight coastal counties, as well as state office and school closures in multiple counties, including Aiken County.

During a press conference on Monday afternoon, South Carolina officials warned that impacts of Florence could extend well over 100 miles from the center of the storm, such as heavy rain and strong winds.

"I'd like to point out that we are expecting more wind than we had with Hugo, and more water than we had with Matthew," McMaster said during a press conference on Monday.

McMaster said the evacuation may be "inconvenient" but officials were not willing to risk a single South Carolinian's life in the hurricane. "As we hear things, we'll alert," the governor said.

Schools used as evacuation shelters

Many public schools will be used as evacuation centers and shelters, said both McMaster and state Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken.

"While the weather surrounding Hurricane Florence isn’t expected to directly impact Aiken County, residents evacuating from coastal areas throughout the state will be evacuating to our area, utilizing our schools as shelter," a press release from the Aiken County Public School District reads.

"All Aiken County schools, programs, offices and departments will be closed for tomorrow, Tuesday, Sept. 11. Our District remains committed to consistent communications with our school community and will provide immediate notification should there be any further impact past tomorrow on normal school operations."

Updates and information will be shared with families via BlackBoard Connect, the Aiken school district's automatic calling system, as well as through its mobile app, website and social media outlets.

"These are not decisions made by the county," Dr. Sean Alford, the school district superintendent, said. "They are made in concert with the state. The folks in the southern part of the state need shelters, and we can help. In this case, we won't go back to school until the governor says we go back to school."

McMaster said school buses may be needed to help with emergency efforts.

As a result of the governor’s mandated evacuations, Horse Creek Academy announced it will be closed Tuesday, Sept. 11, according to the school's social media page.

USC Aiken will cancel all classes and university-related activities, beginning at 12:10 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11. All non-essential personnel can leave at 12:10 p.m. Essential personnel will remain on campus and will be contacted by their immediate supervisors regarding their operating schedules. Updates regarding the operating schedule for Wednesday, September 12, will be posted by 5 p.m., on Tuesday, Sept. 11, on the USC Aiken website.

Aiken Technical College also will be closed Tuesday, Sept. 11, due to possible impacts from Hurricane Florence on the region. Classes scheduled for this evening will continue as scheduled.

"The college will continue to monitor the storm and the local impact. Further notification will be sent should there be any impact beyond tomorrow on normal college operations," according to a news release from the college. "ATC employees and students are encouraged to continue to check their email, MyATC Portal, website, and ATC’s official social media pages for updates."

Fox Creek High School will hold class at the regular time Tuesday and plan to dismiss at the regular scheduled time, according to a news release from the school. "We do not currently have the ability to handle evacuees from the storm and, as a result, we should be able to carry on with our normal schedule. In the event that the weather poses a serious threat to safe travel, a decision will be made at that time," the release states.

At least 1 million residents headed inland

Hurricane Florence strengthened to a Category 4 on Monday.

"We're in for a real episode here," McMaster said during his briefing, later adding: "This is a real hurricane we have coming."

McMaster announced that as of noon Tuesday, he will order a mandatory evacuation of all people in the evacuation zones in eight counties along the coast: Charleston, Beaufort, Jasper, Colleton, Dorchester, Berkley, Georgetown and Horry.

McMaster said that about 1 million people are expected to flee the coast during the evacuation. That includes tourists.

State government offices will be closed in 26 counties except for emergency or essential personnel. County offices will remain open.

Lane reversals will also be put into effect along evacuation routes. I-26 will have lanes reversed so that all traffic is carried toward Columbia, away from the storm. Further traffic information and live cameras can be found at SCDOT.org.

Additional law enforcement will be in place to prevent crimes such as price gouging and looting.

Paul Matthews, director of Aiken County Emergency Management, said his staff has been "closely monitoring" the storm throughout the weekend and they've had numerous conferences.

"We discussed sheltering for coastal evacuees into the Aiken area," Matthews said.

If shelters are to open, South Aiken High School would be the first. If South Aiken gets full, then Silver Bluff High, followed by Paul Knox Middle and then Midland Valley High.

Shelter locations are opened inland based on need. A list of shelter locations, which will be updated in real time, is available at www.scemd.org.

Matthews said he spoke with the National Weather Service office in Columbia and that, on Florence's current track, Aiken is "looking at 35 mile per hour winds in the eastern part of the county" as of Monday. 

Aiken located along evacuation route 

Aiken is a popular evacuation site for horses and has been for years. According to J. David Jameson, president and CEO of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce, this is because people have built relationships in Aiken due to numerous hurricane evacuations.

"Once we know when the storm is coming, we'll see a lot more activity in that direction," Jameson said. "... We're trying to provide the best information we can as seamlessly as we can to those people who need to evacuate."

However, this year horse and other large animal evacuations are complicated by the Aiken Fall Festival at the Aiken Horse Park.

"We're told that all the stables that are normally available at the Aiken Horse Park Foundation and all the Highfield Stables appear to be full," Jameson said. "That's going to cause a little bit of disruption for the people who are used to stabling here."

Some hotels in Aiken are facing similar difficulties.

Tina McCarthy, general manager of The Willcox Hotel, said the hotel has "definitely been getting the calls" of people searching for potential places to evacuate.

"We have been booked during this time for quite some time with the horse show going on," McCarthy said. "We have been receiving some calls and we're keeping a waiting list ... We're trying to accommodate as many people as we can."

Although loss of power is a major concern, state electric cooperative directors have activated a "long-standing, formal agreement" with cooperative directors in surrounding states to secure repair crews in advance of Florence, according to a press release.

"About 100 crews from nearby Georgia are ready to head to the Palmetto State if or when needed," said the press release.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is advising reservoir owners and operators to "take appropriate steps to safely lower the water levels" due to potential problems from rainfall from Hurricane Florence. Depending on the hurricane's track, these potential impacts could be minimal or severe.

For updates on Hurricane Florence, visit nhc.noaa.org.

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.