Traffic jam on I-16 West just south of Macon on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016, as coastal Georgians flee the threat of Hurricane Matthew. (Curtis Compton /
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

Coastal Georgians flee at a snail’s pace on packed roads

A caravan of 10 school and charter buses displayed “EVACUATION” signs as they headed inland on Ga. 204 Thursday.

Hauled boats, trucks and cars packed U.S. 280 near I-95 in Savannah.

The backups were a sampling of the challenges faced by thousands of Georgians fleeing the coast ahead of Hurricane Matthew. During evening rush hour Thursday, Google Maps showed severe traffic delays from Savannah, through Macon, to the metro Atlanta area.

The Georgia Department of Transportation redirected traffic. All four lanes of I-16 were westbound-only Thursday to facilitate residents making their escape, and the Georgia State Patrol enforced the closure of eastbound lanes from Dublin to Savannah.

As of Thursday afternoon, 125 miles of roadway were affected by the evacuation, although no state routes or interstates were closed.

Gov. Nathan Deal ordered the mandatory evacuation of portions of six coastal counties — Bryan, Chatham, Liberty, McIntosh, Glynn and Camden — covering nearly 100,000 residents. The purpose of a mandatory evacuation is to mobilize additional emergency resources and urge residents to leave quickly and safely. A mandatory evacuation does not mean authorities will force residents to leave.

Drivers can exit the newly westbound lanes on I-16 at exits 143, 116, 104, 90, 71, 67 and 51.

Drivers in coastal areas are asked to evacuate inland using Ga. 32 West to I-75 North, Ga. 520 West to I-75 North or Ga. 341 to McRae to U.S. 441 North to I-16.

In the St. Marys and Brunswick areas, as well as in Atkinson, Bacon, Clinch, Pierce and Ware Counties, drivers are asked to take Ga. 520/U.S. 82 West to I-75.

In Lowndes, Brooks, Colquitt, Tift and Taurner counties, drivers should take I-75 North or Ga. 520 West to I-75 North.

Low-lying areas west of I-95 are also being evacuated. Following the storm, GDOT expects to use I-75 and the eastbound lanes of I-16 to bring residents home.

Construction on I-75 from Florida to Barrett Parkway in Cobb County will be suspended until 5 a.m. Saturday.

Highway Emergency Response Operations (HERO) vehicles from metro Atlanta will be sent east to help drivers with emergencies such as accidents, or running out of gas, said GDOT spokesperson Jill Nagel.

Motorists should avoid driving on shoulders, regardless of traffic, Nagel said. The shoulders are reserved for emergency vehicles.

“Be patient with everyone,” she said.