Residents in St. Marys, Georgia’s southernmost coastal city, were weighing whether to flee or stay Monday as Hurricane Dorian slowly moved toward Florida, potentially reaching Georgia by Wednesday.
From furniture salesmen to tow truck drivers, businesses owners in this city of 18,000 people spent the early hours of their muggy Labor Day preparing their storefronts with sandbags and plywood.
Georgia coastal residents east of Interstate 95 are under evacuations orders as of noon Monday, but as of late morning, people here were still trying the figure out the risks of staying at least a while longer.
The storm’s path has been confounding forecasters and regular folks alike as it creeps up the coast, and earlier today was downgraded to a Category 4 from a Category 5 hurricane.
C.B. Yadav owns several businesses in Camden County, including Cumberland Inn and Suites in St. Marys. His employees were boarding up the hotel’s large front windows about 10:30 a.m. Monday.
This is the third time the boards have been used ahead of a hurricane. Just one of those storms, Yadav said, did half a million dollars of damage to the Cumberland Inn’s roof.
The parking lot of the Lowe’s near the city’s waterfront downtown was starting to fill a couple hours before the mandatory noon evacuation.
Yadav said about 80% of his employees are gone, most evacuating Monday.
“They don’t want to wait until the last minute,” he said.
Between his four hotels in Camden County, Yadav has about 300 rooms. Almost all will be empty due to storm-related cancellations during the busy Labor Day weekend. He estimates that’ll amount to between $30,000 to $40,000 of losses.
Yadav, 42, said his wife and their two children (ages 9 and 5) are heading to Atlanta, like they did for the last couple hurricanes, so he can focus on his businesses.
“It’s scary,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Yadav said he has between 20 and 25 people in the hotel, a mix of employees and emergency workers there for the storm, staying for free. The hotel has 107 rooms in all.
Learning from past storm
Manager Shannon Disanto and her family spent Labor Day loading everything in their store, Market on the Square — half a football field away from the St. Marys River — into a U-Haul.
Disanto, 37, and about seven others planned to drive the box truck three miles inland because they expected their third straight year of hurricane flooding. They usually get two feet of water in the store.
They didn’t pack up everything for Irma, and the flooding ruined all their electrical equipment, including three ice cream machines and a deep freezer.
“We lost everything,” she said.
The store sells ice cream and fudge and souvenirs right where folks would normally be catching the ferry to popular and federally protected Cumberland Island, Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island.
Disanto said Labor Day weekend is usually one of their best weekends for making money, but the storm has ruined that. Disanto expects they’ll lose two weeks of business in all.
“Nobody’s relaxing, eating ice cream,” she said.
When the Facebook posts started flying around Wednesday, business started tanking. “The hysteria set in,” she said.
Just so it wouldn’t melt, she ran a buy-one-get-one-free deal on the ice cream Sunday. They sold 18 tubs.
Nuclear submarine base also on coast
Along with 53,000 residents, Camden County is also home to seven nuclear submarines at U.S. Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay.
When asked if the submarines had been moved out to sea for safety, base spokesman Scott Bassett said Monday he wouldn’t discuss the movements of the vessels, but said they are all “safe and secure.”
The base is east of Interstate 95, which puts it in the governor's mandated evacuation zone.
Bassett said about 400 of the Kings Bay’s 9,000 staff are staying behind because they are considered “essential personnel,” in roles like security and fire safety.
The Navy will cover lodging, gas and give a per diem for the rest of the staff and their families to evacuate, as long as they go within 150 miles of Atlanta, Bassett said.
Similar base evacuations happened during hurricanes Matthew and Irma.
During those storms, he said the base never lost power and didn’t flood, but they did get minimal damage to roofs and some floating piers.
Bassett wouldn't take a bet at what Dorian was going to do to the base.
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