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1 family’s dilemma to evacuate or not comes down to money

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — 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. Florence was downgraded from a Category 4 storm earlier this week to a Category 2.

“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.

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.

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.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP .

Read his work at https://apnews.com/search/jeffrey%20collins.