An updated prediction released by the National Hurricane Center on Thursday afternoon indicates that as Irma shifts west, metro Atlanta and North Georgia could face harsher conditions early next week.
“There likely will be tropical storm winds in metro Atlanta, heavy rain and the increased risk of tornadoes,” Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Brad Nitz said.
Irma, which has led to at least 10 deaths due to 175 mph winds, made landfall in Turks and Caicos on Thursday and is moving at a northwestern progression of about 16 mph.
New projections show it is expected to hit south Florida between late Saturday and early Sunday afternoon as a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds, according to Channel 2.
States of emergency have been declared in Florida, 30 counties in Georgia, the Carolinas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where three of the deaths occurred, according to The Associated Press.
Irma should gradually weaken to a Category 1 storm with 90 mph winds in South Georgia by Monday afternoon, Channel 2 reported. As the hurricane moves north, it should weaken to a tropical storm and bring winds between 45 and 50 mph to metro Atlanta. North Georgia should see at least 60 mph winds.
Gov. Nathan Deal on Thursday expanded the state of emergency in Georgia from six to 30 counties and ordered the mandatory evacuation of all areas east of I-95.
The Georgia coast could get 1 to 3 inches of flooding, Channel 2 reported.
“Some beach erosion is expected and is comparable, and perhaps even worse, to what we saw with Hurricane Matthew last year,” Nitz said.
Deal also announced that eastbound traffic on I-16 will be reversed to head west starting at 8 a.m. Saturday.
In addition to declaring a state of emergency, the governor issued an executive order banning price gouging at gas pumps and waiving transportation restrictions for drivers ferrying emergency supplies.
He has scheduled a news conference for 10 a.m. Friday to outline the state’s emergency preparedness and response efforts.
Traffic was already building in parts of metro Atlanta on Thursday. Evacuees caused heavy delays on I-75 North in Henry and Clayton counties.
South metro express lanes will remain exclusively northbound to accommodate evacuee traffic, State Road and Tollway Authority spokeswoman Jodi Smith said in a release. Fees and pass requirements be waived starting at midnight Friday. Tractor-trailers are prohibited from using the lanes.
To further ease some of the congestion, the Georgia Department of Transportation will suspend construction-related lane closures on interstates and secondary routes south of I-20 between noon Friday and 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The College of Coastal Georgia is requiring all students to evacuate its Brunswick campus and the Camden Center no later than 6 p.m. Thursday, school officials said. The Office of Residence Life and Housing is working with students to relocate them to another University System of Georgia campus.
“Our top priority is the safety of our students, faculty and staff,” the school said in a statement.
Savannah State University’s “residential students” are evacuating, too. All residential halls will close no later than Saturday morning and the entire campus will close at noon, officials said.
Classes at Georgia Southern University will be canceled from Friday until Tuesday. The Eagles’ football team was scheduled to play the University of New Hampshire in Statesboro on Saturday, but both schools decided to move the game to Birmingham’s Legion Field. Admission will be free, according to Georgia Southern.
The Savannah College of Art and Design pushed back its start to the school year and started relocating students at 11 a.m.
Hurricane watches were issued for parts of Florida, Channel 2 reported, and a mandatory evacuation is in effect for the Florida Keys. More than 1,000 flights have been canceled to and from Miami.
The U.S. Coast Guard on Thursday set “port condition Whiskey” for ports in Savannah and Brunswick. That designation means winds are expected between 39 and 54 mph within 72 hours and oceangoing commercial vessels and barges should make plans to depart the ports.
Although ports and facilities are currently open for commercial traffic, “mariners are reminded there are no safe havens in these facilities, and ports are safest when the inventory of vessels is at a minimum,” the Coast Guard said in a statement.
Draw bridges may not be working if sustained winds reach 25 mph or when an evacuation is in progress. Vessels that plan to remain at Savannah or Brunswick ports must get permission from the Coast Guard.
For people evacuating with animals, the Georgia Department of Agriculture has temporarily suspended Animal Interstate Movement Health Requirements for those entering Georgia from Florida.
The Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter in Perry is acting as a horse evacuation site and has 350 stalls available.
Atlanta Motor Speedway in Henry County opened Thursday for people seeking temporary refuge. Evacuees will have free access to hot showers and restroom facilities, speedway officials said.
The Southern Region of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service waived fees and made all campgrounds, including the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests in Gainesville, available for individuals displaced by Irma and Harvey.
In Alabama, Talladega Superspeedway is offering a portion of its campgrounds to evacuees.
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