(MYRTLE BEACH, S.C.) -- Residents of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina — a beach town devastated by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Hazel in 1954 — are bracing for what could possibly be the first direct hit by a major hurricane that they've had in decades.
Hurricane Florence, a dangerous Category 3 storm, is barreling toward the southeast U.S., and it's expected to bring massive amounts of rain and catastrophic flooding.
The "biggest fear at this point is that the hurricane will come straight into the Myrtle Beach area ," said city official Mark Kruea.
For residents not listening to the mandatory evacuation notice, Kruea said, "I think they're playing with their life."
"It’s not a thrill ride you want to be on," he warned. "Get to some safety right now."
Myrtle Beach — known for being a vacation hot spot with a boardwalk and attractions that host 18 to 19 million visitors a year — is now a boarded-up ghost town.
One of the biggest attractions along the Grand Strand is the SkyWheel, a 187-foot-tall Ferris wheel that advertises “miles and miles of beach views.” The problem is that it sits rights at the ocean’s edge — all 42 gondolas have been removed.
City officials say it can withstand hurricane-force winds, but they are concerned about possible damages from storm surge.
Many residents appear to have evacuated, but others say they will ride it out.
Joan Noble lives on Pawleys Island, an area under a mandatory evacuation. Though she doesn't live by the beach, her home is surrounded by water, including nearby creeks and a lake in her backyard.
She is still debating whether to stay or go, but she knows time is running out, and she admitted that she’s nervous about the rain accumulation.
"It's not going to be one like Hugo, [which] came in, went right through [and] left its damage," she said. "This one is not going to leave us for a while. So you wonder what that's going to be like. Don't know."
Hospitals in the area are also taking no chances.
Doctors and staff of the city and county’s largest hospital, Grand Strand Medical Center, are working around the clock to safely evacuate patients.
Several critically ill patients were taken out by paramedics and loaded into a large bus that was converted into an ambulance.
Patients are being transported as far as Georgia and Florida.
"It’s not safe to try to care here," said Dr. Jon Pangia, the hospital's Emergency Medical Director. "We’re trying to get everyone out, and as such we are shutting the hospital down."
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