With Hurricane Irma bearing down on Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal expanded the state of emergency to more than half of the state’s counties Friday afternoon.
In all, 94 counties are now under a state of emergency, including South Georgia and middle sections of the state, due to “the storm’s forecasted track shifting west, which will bring hurricane force winds, rain and potential flooding,” Deal said.
Earlier, Deal outlined the state’s emergency preparedness and response efforts, telling reporters, “I want to caution all Georgians that just because the weather now may appear to be calm, do not take that for granted.
“This is a rapidly moving hurricane,” he said. “We all remember the level of destruction most recently with Hurricane Matthew (last year). We understand this has the potential of being even more devastating.”
State officials said they are preparing for a four- to eight-foot storm surge along the coast, as well as major damage from trees uprooted by storm winds and significant rain.
Significant flooding is expected, with expectations that the storm will hit at the worst time for the coast: high tide.
Deal said it was likely he would expand the current 30-county state of emergency order, depending on the storm’s path as it approaches Georgia over the weekend.
The state is also encouraging Florida residents already evacuating to travel to north Georgia to seek safety, with officials saying they plan to have more than 50 shelters open by tomorrow with 7,000 beds available.
Additionally, the state Department of Natural Resources is opening all state parks to evacuees and will not charge entrance or pet fees.
Deal has already ordered a mandatory evacuation beginning Saturday morning for all areas east of I-95, all of Chatham County and some areas west of I-95 that could be in the path of the potential storm surge.
To help with that effort, I-16 from Savannah to Dublin will be closed beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday to eastbound traffic -- allowing people fleeing the storm to use all four highway lanes westbound away from the coast.
The storm is expected to reach the state’s borders Monday, but officials urged residents not to become complacent.
“If you are in a mandatory evacuation zone, please heed those warnings,” said Homer Bryson, director of the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency.
“It will take time for resources to cut their way physically to your area” if residents try to ride out the storm at home, Bryson said. “At that point, you’re going to be in a home with no electricity, no drinking water and no waste water.”
The evacuation order came as Deal has already declared a state of emergency in 30 Georgia counties: Appling, Atkinson, Bacon, Brantley, Bryan, Bulloch, Burke, Camden, Candler, Charlton, Chatham, Clinch, Coffee, Echols, Effingham, Emanuel, Evans, Glynn, Jenkins, Jeff Davis, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Pierce, Screven, Tattnall, Toombs, Treutlen, Wayne and Ware counties
Deal also authorized up to 5,000 Georgia National Guard members to be on active duty to help respond to the deadly storm.
State officials are also monitoring fuel prices, the cost of hotel rooms, the cost of water as well as clean-up recovery efforts for any attempted price-gouging.