Despite storms and deadly flooding from Hurricane Floyd along the eastern seaboard, Thursday dawned clear in Georgia and South Carolina, where the biggest problem for thousands of refugees was figuring out how and when they could get home.
Floyd washed ashore in Cape Fear, N.C., shortly after 3 a.m. Thursday, bringing torrential downpours and shrieking wind to parts of the South Carolina coast. But the worst damage happened in North Carolina and Virginia, leaving many Georgia coastal cities virtually untouched.
With coastal evacuation orders lifted in most areas by 8 a.m., a steady stream of refugees was already making its way out of the Aiken-Augusta area at first light Thursday, clearing out of packed hotels and shelters.
"We should have just left at 4 a.m. this morning," said 18-year-old Carlos Hodge, who stayed at Augusta's Alleluia Community with a group of 30 people from Savannah. "We shouldn't even have gone to bed."
By midafternoon, Interstate 20 in Augusta was backing up as refugees from the storm began making their way home. South Carolina officials closed Interstate 26 to Charleston, S.C., to westbound traffic, allowing all lanes to be used by evacuees returning to the coast. Interstate 16 to Savannah operated normally, with only the usual lanes open to eastbound traffic.
With more than 2.6 million people ordered to evacuate coastal areas in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, the traffic jams and travel problems of evacuees turned out to be a bigger headache for most people than the storm. Officials in all three states were still taking heat Thursday over gridlock on highways, where many vehicles crawled or sat for hours Tuesday, when the evacuations were ordered.
On I-26, a plant outside of Charleston leaked a toxic phosphorous cloud that drifted across the line of cars. Motorists were told to keep their windows tightly shut and air conditioners running to avoid fumes, causing hundreds of cars to stall.
Robert Moore, owner of the Charleston screen-printing business Shirttails, plans to capitalize on the controversy by printing T-shirts that read: "I survived I-26."
Hundreds of thousands of evacuees were making their way back home Thursday after fleeing as far as Alabama and Tennessee to find open shelters and hotel rooms. They returned to battered homes and downed trees but little other damage from a storm that at one time was bigger than Texas and was on the brink of Category 5 status, the worst class of hurricane.
Floyd did about $25 million in insured damage throughout South Carolina, the Insurance Information Institute estimated.
In Myrtle Beach, S.C., where the storm hit shortly after midnight, torrential rain and howling winds shook buildings and rattled windows, as well as downing some trees. More than 200,000 residents of Myrtle Beach lost power, and more than 15 inches of rain fell by midnight. Authorities said they had never seen such severe flooding.
On Thursday morning, a sport utility vehicle was in a pool of water up to its windows on Ocean Boulevard, but skies that had been gray and threatening Wednesday cleared by 8 a.m. and the choppy ocean had smoothed and quieted.
"It's not a big deal, actually -- if you prepare for it," said Bill Quaranto, owner of the El Dorado hotel, as he and friends sipped coffee and pulled plywood off the windows in the strengthening morning light. "We don't leave unless it's really bad. All the hype is what gets people going. It could have been a more orderly evacuation."
Residents fleeing Myrtle Beach were goaded by dire radio reports and TV predictions of a monster storm with 35-foot waves that could engulf the city. In reality, there were widespread power outages and debris, but little else in Georgia and South Carolina, which took a glancing blow as Floyd sheared up the coast on its way to North Carolina.
Hurricane-strength gusts of 80 mph earlier buffeted Charleston, and more than 200,000 people in the area lost power. Downed trees blocked South Carolina Highway 61 between Charleston and Summerville. But despite damaged buildings and debris strewn through downtown streets, most residents were relieved to find that Floyd packed no more punch than most coastal storms.
Further south, Savannah -- which had braced for the full force of Floyd -- was barely touched. A few downed tree limbs and power lines were the only trace of the storm Thursday.
At one point, forecasters thought the eye of Floyd -- then a Category 3 Hurricane -- would pass over Tybee Island, buffeting Savannah with winds up to 125 mph.
Residents as far away as Columbia lost power because of wind and tree limbs tangled in power lines. The only power outage reported in Aiken was on the southside -- serviced by South Carolina Electric and Gas Co. -- shortly after midnight, said Freddie Bell, the county's assistant emergency preparedness coordinator. Power to that area was restored less than an hour later.
Portions of Aiken County reported winds in excess of 30 mph Wednesday night, leaving only an occasional downed tree or power line. No heavy structural damage was reported.
In Monetta, located on the county's northeastern tip, winds were so strong that at one point a deputy was forced to stop his patrol car until the gust subsided, Mr. Bell said.
Augusta had some wind gusts and a few spatters of rain but was otherwise untouched by Floyd.
Some relief agencies were making preparations to head north to help those hit harder by Floyd. Red Cross workers in Augusta are preparing lists of volunteers, although they won't know until the weekend who will be needed, spokeswoman Jana Hill said. Traffic on I-20 included a caravan of trucks from Alabama Power Co. headed east.
Georgia Power will probably send teams from the Savannah area, a spokeswoman said.
After providing supplies for Hurricane Brett survivors in Texas and shipping out 16,000 pounds of food to shelters, Golden Harvest Food Bank won't be able to provide any more supplies unless donations replenish their shelves, Operations Manager Rusty Marsh said. Second Harvest, the national relief agency that Golden Harvest is affiliated with, has already put out a call for bottled water.
Bi-Lo grocery store in Mauldin, S.C., chartered the Charlotte Hornets' jet to fly employees from Tennessee to Augusta before sending the workers on to coastal locations. The extra employees will help reopen stores to make sure returning residents have access to food and supplies.
Associated Press reports were used in this article.