Hundreds of thousands of coastal evacuees fleeing the fury of Hurricane Irma poured into Georgia on Friday as the deadly storm closed in on South Florida.
Interstates, hotels, shelters and campgrounds were overflowing with Floridians seeking refuge. Meanwhile, Georgia braced to protect its own residents and coastal communities. A mandatory evacuation order is in place for Georgia’s coast beginning Saturday.
Early Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump declared Georgia a state of emergency in advance of Irma’s projected path, which Channel 2 Action News forecasters believe will continue toward metro Atlanta. Gov. Nathan Deal and other top emergency officials urged coastal residents to heed evacuation orders as Georgia prepared to feel the hurricane’s wrath.
Though the Category 5 storm has weakened, it is already one of the most powerful storms ever in the Atlantic. The massive storm has already been blamed for some two dozen deaths in the Caribbean and is expected to hit South Florida with a force not seen since Hurricane Andrew a quarter century ago.
“I want to caution all Georgians that just because the weather now may appear to be calm, do not take that for granted,” said Deal, who outlined the state’s emergency preparedness and response efforts at a morning press conference in Atlanta.
“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.”
Trump’s emergency declaration unlocks special federal resources to be sent to Georgia, including extra money, debris removal and protective measures aimed at supplementing the state’s efforts.
Specifically, Trump’s designation authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to provide equipment and resources to the region and coordinate all disaster relief efforts.
If the interstates between Florida and Georgia were any indication, many have heeded the warning to head north. Irma-related lines of cars also filled state highways as those closest to the coast hit the road.
Patrick Witherow left Brunswick with his wife and two children, ages 3 and 7, about 4:30 a.m. Friday. Just like they did for Hurricane Matthew last year, Witherow and his family left for fear of trees falling on their home and knocking out electricity.
“We couldn’t live that way with the kids,” he said.
He has a long drive to his in-laws’ in Illinois.
Several Red Cross shelters opened Friday in Georgia, including two in both Macon and Augusta, and others in Columbus, Valdosta, Waycross and Cordele. Additional shelters will open Saturday, according to a spokeswoman for the Georgia chapter.
Other evacuees planned to remain in the outdoors by camping, though hundreds of miles from the coast. The Atlanta Motor Speedway opened its campgrounds for evacuees, and state parks not in the direct path of the storm were also offering camp sites.
“Once all cabins, yurts and campsites fill, we welcome evacuees to “dry camp” at no cost,” the Georgia Department of Natural Resources posted on its website.
But others seemed determined to wait out the storm, including several at the Cumberland Island National Seashore, including Patty Vanhorn, who has called the area home for 11 years.
The latest projections for Irma, which show the storm weakening and headed west before it crosses into Georgia, don’t scare her, Vanhorn said.
“If it were a direct hit, we’d be gone,” she said.
Vanhorn, who came to the water with 8-year-old son Dean, said she also stayed last year during Hurricane Matthew. She said her home is east of I-95, the area ordered to evacuate, but the land isn’t prone to flooding.
Still, even metro Atlanta and north Georgia will be impacted by Irma, which could bring tropical storm winds up to 50 mph and as much as 6 inches of rain, according to Channel 2 Action News meteorologists.
“I don’t think you need to be boarding up your house,” Channel 2 meteorologist Katie Walls said. “But I do think you need to be weather aware.”
Many in metro Atlanta wasted no time preparing for the storm, lining up at gas stations and rushing to grocery stores for bottled water. While some school systems in south Georgia closed Friday, others were on standby, waiting for the storm to arrive. College and pro football games were also cancelled or moved in anticipation of Irma.
The last hurricane to have a serious impact on Atlanta was Opal in October 1995. The storm was a category 4 hurricane when it hit the Florida Panhandle.
The storm had weakened substantially by the time it ripped through metro Atlanta but still packed a deadly punch. Ten deaths in Georgia were blamed on the storm.
Opal knocked over 5,000 trees in the state, 4,000 of them in metro Atlanta. More than 1,000 power poles were toppled by winds and 410,000 Georgia Power customers were in the dark.
Then-Gov. Zell Miller declared a state of emergency in 45 counties, and schools throughout metro Atlanta and northwest Georgia remained closed for days.
— Staff writers Kristina Torres, Ben Brasch, Tamar Hallerman, Joshua Sharpe and Lauren Foreman contributed to this report