Irma assaults Georgia: Three dead and nearly 1.5 million without power

Irma slogged through Georgia on Monday, leaving a trail of flooding, power outages and downed trees in its wake.

The storm weakened substantially after unleashing hurricane-strength winds in Florida and the Caribbean. But even as a tropical storm, Irma packed a powerful punch.

Three Georgia deaths were blamed on the storm — a 55-year-old Sandy Springs man who was crushed by a tree that fell on his home as he slept, a South Georgia man who was swept off his roof by high winds, and a woman killed when a tree fell on a vehicle in a Forsyth County driveway.

PHOTO GALLERY: Tropical Storm Irma arrives in Florida

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Metro Atlanta — which shut down schools, governments and even mass transit in advance of Irma — was pummeled by rain and wind on Monday that sent stately tulip poplars and oak trees careening into houses. Irma ushered in Atlanta’s first-ever tropical storm warning.

By Monday night, utility crews were scrambling to restore power to some 1.5 million Georgians in the dark. And some of the Floridians who had fled to Georgia to escape Irma were taking to the roads to return home, despite pleas by Gov, Nathan Deal and others that they should stay put until the storm had passed.

‘Never Seen Anything Like This’ 

In Georgia, the most serious impact was along the coast, which sustained the bulk of the power outages and where residents were coping with a storm surge that topped 4 feet.

Glynn, McIntosh and Camden counties were receiving “historic flooding — worse than (Hurricane) Matthew,” said Catherine Howden of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Glynn County was off limits on Monday, residents ordered to stay out until further notice because of widespread flooding and mass power outages. Those residents who remained were told not to shower because the sewer capacity is stretched so thin.

On Saint Simons Island, Irma carried massive stones from the beach and ripped porches off shorefront homes. It lapped at Alex Binkney’s doorstep and delivered a crab.

Hours after watching the storm rise, Binkney was just happy to still be here.

“I’m alive!,” she kept saying.

Savannah and especially Tybee, its low-lying barrier island neighbor, were initially projected to receive a more direct hit from Irma. With the forecast shifting so far to the west, many residents opted to stay, figuring the coastal Georgia area would be spared.

It wasn’t.

By Monday afternoon, portions of Savannah’s River District, a popular tourist draw, were more river than street. A car left near the Talmadge Memorial Bridge (closed on Sunday because of concerns over high winds) was almost completely submerged by the swollen Savannah River. Out on Tybee, some holdouts who decided to ride out the storm ended up having to find alternative accommodations quickly when their homes were engulfed.

Tybee was the victim of supremely bad timing. The worst of Irma hit during high tide, which magnified the damage.

At the southern tip of the Georgia coast, boats were sunk and docks were destroyed along the waterfront in St. Marys, where tourists typically board boats bound for Cumberland Island.

The styrofoam that once kept the docks afloat littered the streets in big chunks and tiny specks. The smell of diesel fuel filled the whipping air.

“I’m the third generation from here and we’ve never seen anything like this,” marveled Bill Gross.

‘You could feel the rumble’ 

After crawling slowly up Florida’s west coast, Irma’s center moved into southwest Georgia early Monday afternoon near Valdosta. It was traveling north-northwest at about 17 mph, heading in the direction of Alabama.

In Valdosta, where many Florida residents were gathered to wait out the storm, winds rattled at 40 mph but didn’t cause serious harm.

Residents in Columbus had rushed to get ready as the storm’s trajectory shifted. They were mostly breathing sighs of relief Monday night.

Although maybe not at Monica Ogle’s house, where it was beginning to smell a lot like Christmas.

The scent was coming off a giant pine that looked to be 100 feet tall. It was lying across her driveway — or, to be more specific, across her fiancé’s car.

The back of the silver Dodge Caliber was smashed by the tree, whose shallow roots had come unfixed from her neighbor’s yard. She didn’t hear it tumble but she felt it meet the ground.

“You could feel the rumble,” said Ogle, 25.

The storm had already taken out power at Ogle’s house a few hours before it took out this tree. It fell around 2 p.m., ripping the power line from her roof and leaving it dangling low over the street.

She said Georgia Power told her it would take a while to get to this incident and after 5 p.m. the tangle of wires was still hanging over the road. The company had so many other more urgent calls to deal with: the storm took out power to about 30,000 customers in Columbus. Ogle was thankful the tree didn’t reach her house, where her daughter, 6, was weathering the storm with her.

At least eight Georgia hospitals, including Emory Healthcare's orthopedics and spine hospital, went to backup generators at some point during the day to keep providing care. A number cancelled elective surgeries and other outpatient procedures, and some 200 nursing home and hospital patients were evacuated. But, overall, the health care facilities reported weathering the storm without major problems.

The Aftermath 

Heading into the storm, Gov. Nathan Deal had expanded a state of emergency to cover all of Georgia’s 159 counties. And anxiety was high as images showed the massive storm approaching.

On Monday night, the consensus seemed to be that things could have been far worse.

Neither wind or rain was as heavy as had initially been projected.

Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Brian Monahan said metro Atlanta should see the worst begin to abate after 10 p.m. Monday. The city was expected to sustain wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph and receive as much as 4 inches of rain. The chance of tornadoes spinning off the storm declined because of cooler-than-expected temperatures, forecasters said.

Tuesday, the biggest problem in metro Atlanta is expected to be lingering power outages and tree damage.

While most schools were expected to remain closed for a second day, MARTA was planning to resume its bus, rail and paratransit service "on a limited basis" as it continues to assess facility and road conditions. MARTA shut down both train and bus service on Monday because of the danger of high winds. It was the first time in the transit agency's history it had done so.

Air service was also expected to pick up again at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Delta Air Lines said it had canceled 800 flights and Southwest said it had scratched all flights into and out of Atlanta after 1 p.m.

And even as Georgia worked to protect its own people, it offered help to its battered neighbor. The Georgia Department of Defense is sending 600 troops to Florida to help with relief efforts there.

Contributing: Staff writers Ben Brasch in Valdosta, Ariel Hart, David Wickert, Rhonda Cook, Alexis Stevens, Christian Boone in Atlanta