Despite Evacuations Ahead of Hurricane Florence, Some Families Stay Home

More than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate as Florence approached

Mercedes O'Neill is a little scared to ride out Hurricane Florence in her home just two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean with her boyfriend, her 6-year-old daughter, two cats and her new son, due Sept. 27.

She thought hard about leaving. She is in a mandatory evacuation zone, but in South Carolina officials can't force anyone to leave.

A family member offered a hotel room 200 miles (320 kilometers) inland from her North Myrtle Beach home in Aiken. But then Florence slowed down. That means more rain would be dumped on the coast, and evacuees would be forced to stay away for an even longer period.

O'Neill and her boyfriend mostly live paycheck to paycheck.

So they decided since they were surrounded by helpful neighbors and since the storm didn't appear to be coming in as strong, they would board up and hunker down.

O'Neill's family is just one of many who are deciding to stay home and ride out the storm, downgraded from a Category 4 storm earlier this week to a Category 2. More than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate as Florence approached. The storm is expected to hover over the coast and bring up to 13 feet of storm surge and as much as 40 inches of rain, resulting in catastrophic flooding. Duke Energy power company said Florence could knock out power for much of its 4 million customers and the outages could last for weeks.

"I could go. But you can't go for every storm. Yes, I'm scared. But I would be more scared if we were alone. Neighbors, helping neighbors, you know?" she said as her daughter Sophie rode her bike out of the driveway and into the empty street.

O'Neill got off work a few hours Wednesday before her boyfriend and a neighbor finished putting plywood on the widows. On one window was spray painted "Thank God for Trump." On the other piece of plywood was "God bless the USA."

If the forecast takes a sudden, drastic turn, they still might leave and join the more than 300,000 people who Gov. Henry McMaster said left South Carolina's coast by Wednesday afternoon.

Wilmington resident Katie feels similarly to O'Neill, telling NBC News that there is "strength in numbers."

“We have several neighbors saying put,” Katie added. “We checked in with one another. We are going band together and make it through.”

When asked what they would do at home, one of Katie's children said they were going to “color [and] try to stay safe during the hurricane.”

The decision cuts across economic classes. About a mile away, Simon Ohayon hasn't decided whether to leave his North Myrtle Beach home because he wants to be near his beachwear store Kings At the Beach, which sits across the street from an oceanfront park.

"I think we can get 3 or 4 feet of water up here. And then waves," Ohayon said. "I put my merchandise up off the ground, but I don't know if I want to leave."

Ohayon said he would look at the forecasts through Thursday afternoon and leave if it looks like Florence would hit as a Category 3.

Those over at Ironclad Brewery in Wilmington are protecting their business as well. And the brewers have sanitized some of their tanks to hold water for other residents staying behind who may need help.

"We're all about community and just trying to do everything we can for everyone," one staff member named Elizabeth told NBC News. "As soon as we can open we'll be open."

Elizabeth added that she was allowed to stay in the Ironclad building, made of steel and brick, because her own home wasn't safe. She also owns a restaurant in town and wanted to watch over that business too.

O'Neill said she will probably think about whether she has made the right decision to stay until the winds get too strong.

The other concern was getting back into North Myrtle Beach. O'Neill figures the Family Dollar, where she works, is going to try to open as soon as it can, and she can get back to making money.

"It just takes forever to get back in," said O'Neill's boyfriend, Kelly Johnson.

O'Neill plans to keep in touch with her store manager and several neighbors waiting out the storm. If one of them is in trouble, they figure the rest can help.

"I think we all thought about leaving. But since we're together, I think that will make it easier," she said.

And then there were the cats. O'Neill wasn't sure that - even if she had money and a place to stay - she couldn't leave Klepto ('he always steals the kitty toys") and Mia ("It's pronounced mee-ya, but stands for MIA because I could never find him") behind.

"Pets are part of our family too," she said.

Jenna lives in a beachfront house on Oak Island, a barrier island in North Carolina that’s part of the state’s evacuation zone. She told NBC News she’ll “stay as long as I can” and expressed awe at the power of Florence.

“It’s an adrenaline rush, you know,” Jenna said. “You can’t control Mother Nature. She doesn’t make exceptions, and as a surfer, you never see waves this big except for during hurricanes. So it’s kind of surreal to see them here at our home break.”

Jenna acknowledged the dangers of the intense storm, such as wind damage and flooding. But she explained that people “have to know where your most sacred belongings are, … have a big car so you can hall them away and don’t get attached to the actual house.”

Casey Dodson lives in Carolina Beach, North Carolina, and told CNN that he is leaning on his “faith in God that we’re going to be here when it’s all over.”

“I’m not even worried at all,” he said. “We got all the windows boarded up and we’ve got water. Plenty of water, plenty of food, and, I mean, we’re just really not worried. We’ve got a sturdy house. And it’s just faith in God that we’re going to be here when it’s all over. That’s pretty much that.”

When asked if he was concerned about Florence’s “life-threatening” conditions, Dodson said, “Honestly, no. But I’m just one of those people that’s not afraid of stuff like that. I mean the most that can happen is your windows are going to get busted out, or you’re roof’s going to rip off, or you’re going to get flooded. But we’re not in a flood zone. So I’m not worried about it being flooded. I’m not worried about the windows being broken. And, I don’t know, we’re going to lose power, but we’ve got plenty of flashlights and stuff like that. So we’re just going to bunker down and see what happens."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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