When can hurricane evacuees go home? Be patient, says Gov. Deal

The massive storm has come and gone, but the thousands of people evacuated in recent days will have to wait longer to return home, Gov. Nathan Deal said Saturday.

“We are still in a dangerous situation,” Deal said. “Please be patient a little while longer.”

But just how long?

Emergency crews began early Saturday assessing the damage from Hurricane Matthew, which barrelled into Georgia during the overnight hours. But it's still too early to know the extent of the destruction or how long recovery efforts may take, Deal said.

About a million Georgians live in the six coastal counties where evacuation was mandatory or recommended. The hardest-hit areas were Savannah and the barrier islands, where the storm surge exceeded previous records, Deal said.

But for the 6,570 people staying in Red Cross shelters, 10,500 others camping at state parks, and countless others in hotels or with friends and family, getting home was the ultimate goal. But first, there needs to be safe roads for traveling, officials said.

Savannah and Tybee Island

The Chatham Emergency Management Agency said in a Saturday afternoon news release the county, which includes Savannah, was in Phase One of the re-entry plan. That includes first responders and utility crews.

Dennis Jones, executive director of the CEMA told the Savannah Morning News a timeline for re-entry was unknown.

“As far as the timing that is extremely difficult to tell right now because we simply don’t know,” Jones told the Morning News. “We don’t know the extent of the damages. We don’t know the extent of the bridges that have to be inspected. We’re just now getting into the community to evaluate that.”

Tens of thousands of Chatham residents were without power Saturday after numerous trees snapped power lines.

I-95 was open, but along its entire length in Georgia authorities discouraged anyone from exiting to the east, save for public safety and repair crews. They were trying to prevent travelers from heading into flooded areas or where power lines were down, Col. Mark McDonough said.

“Your safety is in doubt if you attempt to go east of I-95,” he said.

Along I-95, dozens of trees were down, partially blocking lanes of travel.

And a portion of President Street, which connects to the freeway that connects to Tybee Island, was flooded with six feet of water. One motorist Saturday morning tried to cross the flooded road only to see their vehicle become submerged. A police officer on the scene said he did not know if the motorist was injured in the incident.

St. Simons Island / Glynn County

Much the same story in Glynn County on Saturday. Authorities said Saturday people will be able to return to the barrier islands only after they determine they are safe. They could not provide a timetable.

Local officials are still tabulating the damage, which includes numerous downed trees and power lines. Meanwhile, the county school system will be closed Monday and Tuesday.

“There is extreme damage, a lot more so on the islands, of course, than on the mainland,” Glynn County Commission Chairman Richard Strickland told reporters. “We have trees down. We have a lot of power lines down. That’s the reason why right now the islands are not accessible to the public. We have to have the time to get everything back up and running. Once that happens, we will return to business as usual.”

County authorities warned earlier this week the hurricane could turn into a 500-year event with 9-foot storm surges carrying 25-foot waves. The storm was not as powerful as predicted, and it struck earlier than expected, starting at about 10 p.m. The effects lasted until 8 a.m. Saturday, said Jay Wiggins, the county’s director of emergency management and homeland security.

“If this had happened on a high tide, it would have been a much worse incident,” he said. “It was strictly luck and timing that helped us with this.”

Brunswick Mayor Cornell Harvey said his community also suffered downed trees and damage to homes.

“We are very fortunate that we have come through this as we have,” he said.

St. Marys / Camden County

The instruction on the city’s website Saturday was clear, if spelling-challenged: “Due not attempt to return to Camden County. Entry will not be allowed.”

The city said power and water remain unavailable in many areas, and crews must clear downed trees and power lines before people may return. In addition, the county closed at least eight bridges; each had to be inspected before anyone was permitted to drive on them. As a result, the St. Marys website said, “The evacuation order is still in effect.”

It said the Camden County Emergency Management Agency will make the decision on when it is safe to return and told residents to check the county EMA’s Facebook page.