SAVANNAH - By the time residents and business owners started boarding up windows or packing up to leave, a priceless piece of American history was already safely secured from possible damage from Hurricane Irma.
A draft copy of the United States Constitution, once owned by founding University of Georgia President Abraham Baldwin, is the jewel of the Georgia Historical Society’s collection. The staff here moved early and diligently to safeguard it and other collection items from harm.
“We have to prepare every time as if it was the worst case scenario,” said senior historian Stan Deaton. “We can’t get caught flat footed.”
That means the staff works well in advance of official evacuation orders to move documents from the reading room into the vault, to board up windows and to lay tarps inside, should there be any sort of roof damage.
“We do the work at GHS in time to let people go take care of their personal property,” he said.
FEMA Operation Chief, Lora Goza details Hurricane Irma efforts at the Regional Response Coordination Center in Atlanta. Video by John Spink/AJC
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The streets here are quiet today, with little traffic, vehicular or pedestrian. Lots of destinations that normally would welcome tourists on a balmy, sunny day like today are locked up tight.
But knock around town a little and you’ll hear the whine of saws and the pounding of hammers as residents board up ahead of Hurricane Irma.
Leroy Fickling boards up a home in Savannah's Ardsley Park neighborhood ahead of Hurricane Irma. Photo: Jennifer Brett
Many residents have set out already, as evidenced by the traffic arriving via Interstate 16. By 8 a.m. Saturday, all of I-16 will be headed westbound. Gov. Nathan Deal has expanded a state of emergency to 30 counties and has issued a mandatory evacuation order for everyone east of I-95.
During a Friday morning news conference, Deal expanded on the meaning of a “mandatory evacuation order,” saying authorities won’t force people to leave. Those who choose to remain do so with the understanding that emergency personnel will not attempt rescue operations at the height of the storm’s impact, Deal explained.
Deaton’s taking a wait and see attitude.
“We have a place in north Georgia. That’s where I went during Matthew,” he said. With storm forecasts shifting to suggest a more westward path, though, he’s monitoring things for now. Either way, he’s confident he and his colleagues have taken all measures to ensure the history society’s items will survive unscathed.
“We’ve been good stewards of Georgia history since 1839,” Deaton said. “We don’t leave anything to chance.”
The Georgia Historical Society's building in Savannah dates to 1875, and withstood the hurricanes of 1893 and 1898. Photo: Jennifer Brett