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Ian strengthens to hurricane again as it heads toward South Carolina

“If you haven’t yet made plans for every contingency, this afternoon is the time to do so,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said.

North Carolina and South Carolina were on alert Thursday as Ian made its way toward them after it cut a path of destruction through Florida and regained strength over the Atlantic Ocean.

Ian, downgraded to a tropical storm after it struck Florida's west coast as a major hurricane Wednesday, strengthened again to a hurricane Thursday evening, the National Hurricane Center said.

A hurricane warning is in effect from the Savannah River in Georgia to Cape Fear in North Carolina, an area that includes the entire coast of South Carolina, where the storm is expected to make a direct hit. A tropical storm warning is in effect for parts of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency Wednesday. The governors of North Carolina and Georgia did the same.

“If you haven’t yet made plans for every contingency, this afternoon is the time to do so,” McMaster said in a statement Thursday. “We can expect to experience a lot of rain throughout the state along with dangerous storm surge in low-lying coastal areas. With the potential for hurricane force winds along our coast, it’s important for South Carolinians to plan now."

South Carolina officials said Ian could be the first hurricane to make direct landfall there since Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which brought heavy flooding. According to forecasts, Ian could create storm surges as high as 4 to 7 feet to South Carolina's coast.

Charleston, which routinely floods and faces a possible direct hit from the storm, opened sites for residents to pick up sandbags to protect their homes. City leaders were working with state and county officials to coordinate a response and specifically warned those in low-lying areas to make extra preparations.

“The big thing is we want everybody to be cautious, don’t panic, be prepared and have a plan of how you’re going to take care of yourself and your loved ones," said Ben Almquist, the city’s emergency management director, NBC affiliate WCBD reported.

The hurricane, which was about 240 miles south of Charleston, had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph and was moving north-northeast at 10 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center's 5 p.m. update. The storm "could slightly strengthen" before it reaches land, the hurricane center said.

Ian is expected to approach the coast of South Carolina on Friday and move inland across the Carolinas on Friday night and Saturday, rapidly weakening as it moves across land, the hurricane center said.

While South Carolina faces the largest threat, North Carolina and Georgia also could have significant flood events because of Ian’s downpours and storm surges.

"This storm can still be dangerous and even deadly," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said at a briefing Thursday. "Heavy rains, up to 7 inches in some areas, are likely to bring flooding, landslides threaten our mountains, and there's a chance of tornadoes and statewide coastal flooding."

William Ray, the director of the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management, said at the briefing that the department had positioned 350 personnel at the state's operations center and three other regional centers to support any response. He said the department did not yet, for the most part, recommend evacuations, but he said residents should remain vigilant.

That was a common refrain from officials in all three states, who urged residents to stay on alert even though the storm has been downgraded after its catastrophic arrival in Florida.

Before Ian strengthened again, Daniel Kaniewski, who was a deputy administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Trump administration, said: "Just because it's no longer a hurricane doesn't mean storms can't be deadly. As we saw with Hurricane Ida, there were more fatalities from that storm in New York, New Jersey than there were in Louisiana."

Ida, which initially hit Louisiana last year before it made its way to the Northeast, surprised many in New York and New Jersey. The flooding caught officials and residents flat-footed.

Kaniewski, who is now the managing director of the risk management and strategy firm Marsh McLennan, said the flooding risks after a hurricane strikes can be significant — even as it weakens.

Ian still has the strength to dump a huge amount of rain on Georgia and the Carolinas. It could also draw significant amounts of water up rivers and streams, creating immense flood risks.

Kaniewski said it could be "absolutely catastrophic depending on the environment and where that water ends up."

"The key point, just as it was the key point before it made landfall in Florida, is that citizens should heed the advice of local officials, because these impacts can be highly localized and the local officials will know based on the modeling what the impacts are likely to be," he said.