As powerful hurricane bears down on Florida, Georgia braces for a hit

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Hurricane Ian could bring dangerous coastal storm surges, high winds and flash flooding to Georgia this week — but not the threat of catastrophic destruction the storm poses for Florida’s Gulf coast.

In an increasingly familiar scenario amid rising ocean temperatures, Ian intensified rapidly over the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, hours after leaving widespread flooding and power outages across western Cuba. It is expected to be a Category 4 hurricane, with sustained maximum winds exceeding 130 mph, when it makes landfall Wednesday.

Forecasters predicted the storm’s center would come ashore in a heavily populated, low-lying area south of Tampa, although the path is far from certain. Wherever it strikes, forecasters said, the greatest danger will come not from wind but from water.

Storm surges of 8 to 12 feet are expected from Longboat Key, off Sarasota, south to Bonita Beach, near Fort Myers. Surges could reach 4 to 7 feet in Tampa Bay, threatening the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg. And as the storm slows after reaching land, it could dump 15 to 20 inches of rain.

Despite mandatory evacuations from coastal areas, officials said Ian is likely to leave behind a deadly trail.

“Floridians are going to feel the impacts of this storm for a very long time,” Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said during a White House briefing Tuesday.

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp declared a statewide emergency, saying the storm could affect each of the state’s 159 counties. He called up 500 troops from the Georgia National Guard to help with storm preparation and recovery and prohibited price gouging related to the storm through Oct. 28.

“We’re still watching the track and where that’s going to hit from a flooding perspective — downed trees, power lines, just normal stuff. but we got our whole team ramped up ready to go,” Kemp said. “I feel good about where we are.”

On Monday, the state activated its emergency operations center in Atlanta to coordinate response. Teams were positioned in Atlanta and Middle Georgia ahead of the storm.

State officials did not order immediate evacuations. But Chris Stallings, head of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said Georgians in vulnerable housing and low-lying areas prone to flooding should consider “a temporary relocation to higher ground.”

Residents need to be vigilant, Stallings said, because “this storm is changing rapidly and is probably going to change more through the course of the next couple of days.”

Officials are particularly concerned about Georgia’s 110-mile coastline. The National Hurricane Center issued a tropical storm warning for Camden and Glynn counties in the state’s southeastern corner, meaning residents there can expect winds as high as 73 mph. A tropical storm watch was in place for Georgia’s other four coastal counties and north into South Carolina.

Forecasters predicted a storm surge of 4 to 6 feet between the mouth of the St. Mary’s River, at the Florida border, and Altamaha Sound, just north of St. Simons Island. Rainfall in the area could total 5 to 7 inches.

“Flooding will be a significant issue,” said Chuck White, head of Camden County’s emergency management agency. He expects power outages from falling trees, which could cascade into problems with the county’s water and sewer systems.

An evacuation order is still possible, White said. “We hold everything in the tool bag that is available to us. Our No. 1 priority is life safety.”

In Savannah, where portions of downtown’s River Street were submerged during Hurricane Irma in 2017, officials were in an “enhanced monitoring phase,” the Chatham County emergency management office said on its website. And the Georgia Ports Authority, which operates harbors in Savannah and Brunswick, said it was prepared to shut down the ports if necessary.

“The cone of uncertainty is very large, so it’s difficult to know how the conditions will impact the coast,” ports spokeswoman Loretta Lapore said. “We are working with the U.S. Coast Guard and tracking the storm.”

Ian’s effects on the coast, as well as the rest of the state, will depend on its path out of Florida.

The center of the storm is expected to enter Georgia near Valdosta on Friday, placing the coast on its more destructive eastern side, said Vaughn Smith, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Peachtree City. But if Ian moves off into the Atlantic Ocean, its severity across the state will lessen.

“The farther east it goes, the better for Georgia,” Smith said.

Either way, he said, the storm’s effects will extend as much as 300 miles from its center.

Forecasters expect rain and winds associated with Ian to hit metro Atlanta by late Friday afternoon, just in time for rush hour. Winds will increase through Saturday to 15 to 20 mph, with gusts of 30 to 40 mph, Smith said. Rainfall in the region could total 3 to 4 inches by Sunday.

As the storm loomed, utility companies began preparing for its aftermath.

Georgia Power began staging equipment across the state Saturday, said Jeff Goolsby, who supervises the utility’s storm center. In the days since, linemen and other workers from around the country, obtained through Georgia Power’s mutual aid agreements with other utilities, have streamed into Georgia to respond to possible power outages.

“Some of them, it takes a day to get here, and some of them, it takes a couple of days,” Goolsby said Tuesday. “They’ll be rolling into the state through the week and be here ahead of the storm.”

The most positive news about Ian came from petroleum industry analysts. The website GasBuddy activated its fuel availability tracker for motorists in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina as a precaution, but said it does not expect disruptions to gasoline supplies from the storm.

Staff writers Greg Bluestein, Drew Kann, Kelly Yamanouchi, Scott Trubey and Jozsef Papp contributed to this article.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS