Here's what it's like for the thousands seeking shelter from Hurricane Florence

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Three years ago, Lavette Pixley and her son thought they could ride out a massive storm fed by Hurricane Joaquin as it moved through the Atlantic. Then they woke up to a flooded apartment and had to be rescued by firefighters.

As Hurricane Florence approached on Thursday afternoon, hours from making landfall, Pixley and her 8-year-old son, Tayon, left their apartment for Ridge View High School, where the American Red Cross is operating a shelter. This time, Pixley said, they chose to take no chances.

“I’m scared. We have bad memories from last time,” she said. “It’s better to be somewhere dry and safe.”

By Thursday evening, Pixley, 46, was lying on a cot provided by the Red Cross, and Tayon was playing with his Spider-Man stuffed toy. They were among 85 people who had traveled from across the state to seek shelter here in the state’s capital. The majority are from Richland County, which includes Columbia, but some drove from as far as Charleston, about 115 miles away.

Hurricane Florence began to make its presence felt in the Carolinas on Thursday with heavy wind and rains. The storm, which was growing in size, had winds of up to 100 mph. Some areas were expecting a storm surge as high as 13 feet.

Derrec Becker, a spokesman for South Carolina’s Emergency Management Division, said authorities are most concerned about how much rain the Carolinas are expected to receive over the next several days

“If it gets to that point, we’re looking at catastrophic flooding,” he said. “We’re talking about flooding that could potentially result in fatalities.”

Authorities urged residents to evacuate to safety. More than 4,500 people had checked into shelters in South Carolina, and authorities said they had space for more than 34,000 across 64 shelters.

Downtown Wrightsville Beach

At Ridge View High School, a combination of cots, air mattresses and sleeping pads lined the walls of the school’s gymnasium, where most people rested in the early evening. Some slept, while others read or watched videos on their tablets.

Outside the gymnasium, the Red Cross set up a place for activities and games for children. Crayons, colored pencils and other art supplies blanketed one table, while another had Connect Four games and a Spider-Man puzzle. An older man taught three children how to play chess, while another used a deck of cards to play solitaire.

Red Cross shelter

William Weiselberg, who moved from New York to Myrtle Beach four years ago, arrived at the shelter by accident. He left his home Tuesday afternoon, intending to travel to Atlanta, where he planned to stay with friends. While driving, his friends told him they had a medical emergency. So he checked into a Holiday Inn and overheard a sheriff talking about the shelter at the high school. Weiselberg, 67, said he was skeptical of the condition of the shelter, but he thought he would at least check it out.

“My idea of a shelter is you’d rather die on the street or sleep in your car or whatever before you go into a shelter,” he said. “Shelters in New York are known for being violent places. You don’t want to be there.”

But Weiselberg said he was pleasantly surprised by the shelter and expected to stay there instead of the hotel. Since he arrived, he has played cards and read a book.

Still, he worries about the state of his house, which is about a mile away from the Atlantic Ocean.

Sterlin Casseus, 22, arrived from Charleston on Wednesday afternoon. Casseus, who previously lived in Florida, said he evacuated for Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

“I’m probably going to ride it out here until Saturday or Sunday, until things calm down,” he said. “It’s real comfortable. They have plenty of water, food, whatever you need. It’s kind of home away from home.”