Pierless: St. Simons Island Pier is closed as Hurricane Matthew moves closer to Georgia on Friday morning. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Thousands of Georgians evacuate as Hurricane Matthew approaches

More than 2 million people in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas are under mandatory evacuation orders. Late Thursday, President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Georgia, opening up federal aid that will supplement state and local efforts.

Matthew was centered 50 miles east-southeast of Fernandina Beach, Fla., at 7 p.m. Friday, the National Hurricane Center said. The storm was downgraded from Category 4 on Thursday to Category 2 this afternoon but remained exceedingly dangerous, with sustained winds of 110 mph. The 7 p.m. advisory said Matthew was "wobbling northward." It was expected to pass over or near the Georgia coast within hours.

The storm center extended its hurricane warning from Cocoa Beach, Fla., to Surf City, N.C. Matthew has not caused the catastrophic damage to Florida that forecasters had feared, and the question now is what the storm holds in store for Georgia. The 7 p.m. advisory said a private weather station had clocked sustained winds at 48 mph on Tybee Island.

Glynn County authorities Thursday night spoke in near-apocalyptic terms about the prospects for damage to St. Simons and Jekyll. They said Matthew could be a 500-year event with 9-foot storm surges carrying 15-foot high waves.

People who did not comply with mandatory evacuation orders in Glynn should take shelter and not try to flee now, Jay Wiggins, the county's emergency management director, cautioned. Glynn has stopped dispatching emergency workers because the conditions outside are so dangerous, he said.

“This is an amazing storm surge event," Wiggins said. "It could be very catastrophic for us here. (The county could experience) no electricity, damage to water and sewer systems, inadequate gasoline and food supplies, contaminated water, impassible roadways. It could very well be a nasty place to be.”

A heavy rainfall began around 8:30 a.m. on St. Simons Island, by then a ghost town. Many of the stores here are shuttered, boarded up or lined with sandbags. 

Meanwhile, the state Department of Corrections began moving inmates out of a prison outside of Savannah and from a nearby halfway house. By Friday, 1,543 had been moved to facilities not in the storm’s path.

Airlines were also canceling flights by the hundreds on Friday. The Associated Press, citing the tracking service FlightAware, reported that 4,500 flights have been canceled because of the storm. The AP said all flights to and from Orlando have been canceled Friday and half scrapped Saturday. Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld all closed because of the storm. Delta Air Lines said it canceled 200 flights today and had stratched 80 for Saturday.

In Brunswick: 'Happy Hurricane Day'

Up and down Georgia’s 100 miles of coastline, residents made difficult decisions about whether to go or stay. Most went.

In Brunswick, though, Suleiman Solomon didn't have much choice. The owner of Adam's Meat Market said he can't close because he is waiting for a big meat order coming from North Carolina. So now, for his community, his corner store is the only place open to get eggs, milk, candy, aspirin and even a cold beer.

“Happy Hurricane Day,” Solomon greets his customers as they come in.

Solomon said he is going to remain open throughout the storm, in spite of the warnings from county officials.

(The Georgia-South Carolina football game scheduled for Saturday in Columbia was pushed to Sunday afternoon.)

Gov. Nathan Deal ordered the mandatory evacuation of portions of six coastal counties and closed the eastbound ramps of I-16 near Dublin. Once the eastbound lanes of the Macon-to-Savannah highway were clear, the state used both sides of the interstate as a hurricane evacuation route going westward.

Chris Riley, the governor’s chief of staff, said today that authorities would “press the message that residents who ignore the mandatory evacuation put our first responders in harm’s way. We have activated 320 national guard soldiers and will probably call more into duty today.”

At a press conference this afternoon, Deal and other state officials Georgians to stay away from the coast until given the all-clear in the days to come.

Deal said state agencies must assess hurricane-affected areas once Matthew moves away from the state.

“Don’t put yourself in greater jeopardy by trying to return too soon,” Deal said. 

Deal said he spoke with President Barack Obama on Thursday and asked that he sign an order declaring a federal emergency. Obama did so that night. On Friday, the president urged those along the coast to remain vigilant.

“Those of you who live in Georgia I think should be paying attention because there's been a lot of emphasis on Florida, but this thing is going to keep on moving north, through Florida, into South Carolina,” Obama said at the White House. “There are large population centers there that could be vulnerable, so pay attention to what your local officials are telling you.”

The National Hurricane Center predicted that Matthew would be a Category 2 hurricane (maximum of 110 mph winds) when it strikes the Georgia coast and could dump up to 14 inches of rain here.

Georgia has not had a direct hit from a hurricane in more than a century, and the mandatory evacuation order and interstate closure came a day after Deal expanded a state of emergency from 13 to 30 counties in the southeastern region of the state.

Georgia’s state of emergency covers Appling, Atkinson, Bacon, Brantley, Bryan, Bulloch, Burke, Camden, Candler, Charlton, Chatham, Clinch, Coffee, Echols, Effingham, Emanuel, Evans, Glynn, Jeff Davis, Jenkins, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Pierce, Screven, Tattnall, Treutlen, Toombs, Ware and Wayne counties.

Should I stay or should I go?

Savannah was battened down this morning. A few cars plied Bay Street. The river – the artery that gives this city its economic lifeblood – was void of container ships and tugs. The state ports at Garden City, just upriver from empty and spooky River Street, closed Friday.

It was getting busy again at the Savannah Civic Center where locals, mostly poor, awaited rides to Red Cross evacuation centers in Augusta. More than 40 buses carried 1,500 residents to Augusta on Friday.

“We didn’t have any major issues last night,” said Michael Riemann, a Gainesville, Ga. resident coordinating the evacuation for the Red Cross. “We anticipate a little bit of a bump (of evacuees) this morning.”

The last bus was scheduled to leave at 10 a.m. Then, the evacuators are going to evacuate.

“We have to have enough time for our people to get out,” Riemann said.

As Savannah hunkers down, Tybee Island – 20 miles east of downtown into the Atlantic Ocean and closer to Hurricane Matthew’s eye – waits. Tybee, the popular and laid-back tourist town for Atlantans and others, was the region’s first community to order a mandatory evacuation. Most, not all, residents heeded that advice.

“If there’s one message we want to get out to people it’s that they need to leave,” Tybee Mayor Jason Buelterman said Thursday in a YouTube video. “The National Weather Service advised us that there’s a chance Highway 80 (the only route onto the island) will be covered in water not only at high tide, but low tied too. We don’t want anybody stranded out here.”

‘My first hurricane and my last hurricane’

In Brunswick, a bleary-eyed Diane Najar ambled around a motel lobby this morning and made a firm declaration.

“This is my first hurricane and my last hurricane,” said Najar, originally from El Paso, Texas. “I’m leaving.”

Najar and her husband got a condo on St. Simons a year and a half ago and were supposed to be there five years. The couple has been at a Brunswick motel since Wednesday night with two changes of clothes.

Najar was already worried about the storm, but a 5 a.m. phone call left her more concerned.

A friend who works at Brunswick’s Southeast Georgia Hospital said they’d evacuated the hospital at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Another thing is making her anxious: She doesn’t know how to swim.

“I’m afraid it’s going to be another Katrina,” she said.

Heading into the storm

Kevin Lynch and his utility crew with Tri-M Group were filling up their trucks at a Raceway station outside of Kingsland, one of the few stations still open before 8 a.m. Friday as outer bands of Hurricane Matthew drenched Camden County in South Georgia.

It was a last stop for fuel and snacks before they crossed over into Florida where the convoy of about 15 trucks planned to make their way to an inland staging area in Lake City. 

Lynch said his crew drove nearly 800 miles from Pennsylvania on Thursday. 

"Last night about 66,000 were out," Lynch said of power outages in North Florida. "It's 299,000 now."

AJC reporters on the Georgia coast are live-tweeting the storm: Follow @dchapmanajc, @JeremyLRedmon and @FitzTrubey.

Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin, Greg Bluestein and Matt Kempner contributed to this article.