Gov. Nathan Deal ordered a mandatory evacuation of portions of six coastal counties Thursday as Hurricane Matthew gained new strength at sea. (Bob Andres / AJC)

Gov. Deal and the hurricane: A quieter state of emergency?

Gov. Nathan Deal used the word “cautious” several times on Thursday to describe his approach to Hurricane Matthew. Even as he urged coastal residents to escape the coming storm, he also urged them not to go overboard.

“We are being cautious but we don’t want anyone to panic,” said Deal. “We are prepared as we can be for this crisis.”

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has pleaded on camera several times this week for coastal residents to evacuate. And Florida Gov. Rick Scott bluntly warned Floridians on Thursday: “This storm will kill you.”

But public pleading and colorful sound bites are not Deal’s style. Although he has ordered one of the largest evacuations in state history, the governor has stayed largely behind the scenes as state officials ramp up their preparations for the storms. He was on camera only once before hosting two press conferences on Thursday.

In his later press conference Thursday in coastal Georgia, Deal noted, “It’s the first time I’ve had a hurricane on my watch. We have been fortunate. But we don’t need to be lackadaisical… . We have been cautious in our declaration.”

Perhaps too cautious, one coastal resident suggested on Thursday.

Keith Crosson, 46, who lives near downtown Savannah, was waiting at an evacuation shelter. 

"We should’ve been warned more loudly – police, firemen, city officials, and the governor definitely," he said. 

At his news conference, though, Deal was asked whether he was satisfied with Georgia’s preparations, now that he has seen what Haley did in South Carolina.

“I am. We believe we made the declaration (at) the right time for the evacuation,” Deal replied. “… It’s very disruptive to pick up and leave homes and business.”

With Hurricane Matthew, Georgia probably isn’t facing the same peril as Florida. But Deal said he has been “very cautious” messages to the public and is loath to use the same sharp warnings other Southern governors have directed at their hurricane holdouts.

Asked what message he had for holdouts in Georgia, he said “Mother Nature” will answer that.

“I have not been one who has overreacted,” he added. “But we want to imply this is serious.”

The governor has taken few chances after the poor communication and slow government response to the 2014 ice storm that transformed a dusting of wintry weather into an embarrassing disaster.

Under the state’s new weather response strategy, Deal seems to have embraced a better-safe-than-sorry policy. He has declared emergencies and called for workers to stay home long before severe storms rumbled through.

As Matthew neared on Thursday, the state was taking a broad range of precautions.

Hundreds of state emergency staffers deployed near the coast. Pilots moved state aircraft to higher ground in case they’re needed for search-and-rescue missions. Dozens of Georgia National Guard soldiers were called to duty. Deal ordered 100,000 residents living east of Interstate 95 to leave and urged another 400,000 in low-lying areas to follow suit.

And Deal, again, walked the line in his message to the public, trying to strike a balance between a firm warning and his concern about inciting panic.

“We aren’t going to go dragging anyone out of their houses against their will,” Deal said. “But the mandatory evacuation is significant. It’s the highest warning we can give to people on the urgency of evacuating.”

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