By Jennie MATTHEW
Myrtle Beach, United States (AFP) Oct 7, 2016
Patti and Mike Runge were only yesterday having the time of their lives on their first family beach vacation in 16 years of marriage.
But on Thursday, they were loading up their car and fleeing as Hurricane Matthew brought their South Carolina beach idyll to an abrupt end.
"The hotel staff told us we had to go," Patti said in the lobby of their hotel in Myrtle Beach, her 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter already waiting in the car ready to go.
"It's totally a ghost town," the office worker said, not unduly worried herself, accustomed to monster blizzards that can dump eight feet (2.5 meters) of snow in her backyard in Buffalo, New York each winter.
The Runges were among 100 remaining guests asked to leave their hotel overlooking the ocean as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley ordered coastline communities in this area to evacuate from noon (1600 GMT).
With Hurricane Matthew bearing down on Florida and forecast to hit South Carolina over the weekend, the once-packed beach resort was reduced to a ghost town as tourists cut short vacations and fled north.
"A lot of people thought they had to evacuate yesterday and a lot of people did leave early," Mike said.
"If they would have let us, we would have stayed," his wife said, laughing. Instead they are ending their family holiday of a lifetime with relatives before finishing the 14-hour drive home.
Pristine beaches, warm ocean and golf courses are just some of the attractions that brought just under 18 million tourists to the state's Grand Strand coastline last year.
- 'Nervous' -
The season usually lasts to early November. Hotel occupancy last weekend was more than 80 percent, said Keith Pierce, public relations strategist from the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
"We are enjoying one of the best falls we've had ever," he said. "But for this weekend, they had to call and cancel."
Streets were deserted, a handful of motels and other buildings were boarded up. The vast majority of coffee shops, restaurants and tourist attractions remained closed and cars were loading up.
Another family frantically bundled giant plastic bags full of belongings into two cars, too stressed to speak to reporters and determined to set off as fast as possible home to Pennsylvania.
On the windswept beach, retiree Marcia Hoag brought daughter Kelly and two grandchildren Zachary, nine, and Aria, three, for a last paddle in the waves before hunkering down indoors.
"We're nervous," Hoag admitted as she gathered up the family's possessions before heading to her son and daughter-in-law's home, where they are on holiday also down from upstate New York.
"I mainly don't want to leave my son and daughter-in-law down here," she said. "He wants to be tough and ride it out."
The beach was eerily deserted.
"It was packed with people here yesterday and then we came today and it was like 'Oh my God there is nobody here,'" said Hoag's daughter Kelly Allmendinger, 26, who works as a bartender.
- 'Pretty scary' -
The only other family on the beach was that of wedding designer Sandra Church, who brought her three children to see the unusually choppy waves.
"All the hotels, everything getting boarded up. It's getting pretty scary," she said. It was when her children's school closed Tuesday for a week that she went into "panic mode."
She rushed to the shops, but the food line was so packed, she said she couldn't get into the store, so stocked up on water the next day. She hopes their five-bedroom house can withstand the storm.
"If we have to go, we'll go," she said. "I don't know where we'd go honestly."
But across town, one man at least is staying put.
Handyman Bart Lawson, 46, drove four-and-a-half hours from Greenville, South Carolina to board up people's homes -- average cost $140 -- for a 45-minute to an hour's job each to protect them from flying debris.
"It ain't going to be as bad as they think," he said shirtless as he drilled plywood over a client's door -- the word "chaos" tattooed on his stomach.
When he finishes work, he's going to "a hurricane party" that a friend at his motel knows about.
"I've always heard about hurricanes," he said, "and I just want to see what it's like."
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