- Alan Judd The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Metro Atlanta will wake up Monday on the wrong side of Hurricane Irma.
A day after pounding virtually all of Florida, Irma will push through Georgia with winds so strong and rain so intense that property damage, flooding and power outages are all but assured. The storm’s center is forecast to pass near Albany and Columbus on its way to Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. But Irma’s eastern side will deliver the most punishing wind and rain, putting the Atlanta area in particular peril.
Two hundred fifty miles inland, Atlanta is, for the first time, under a tropical storm warning.
Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency in all 159 Georgia counties Sunday, ordering all but essential government workers to stay home Monday. Every school district in metro Atlanta, along with many others across the state, called off classes for Monday; some will also be out Tuesday. Both MARTA and the Xpress commuter-bus system suspended service for Monday.
“Virtually the entire state of Georgia is going to be impacted by this hurricane,” Deal said during a brief news conference at the state’s emergency operations center in Atlanta. “We are taking precautions in every area.”
His advice to Georgians: “Stay in place, make sure that it’s a secure place … and stay off the roads.”
What to expect
Irma’s assault on Georgia will mark the beginning of the end for one of recorded history’s most powerful hurricanes.
No storm has remained at the top of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale – category 5, with winds exceeding 157 mph – longer than Irma. And with tropical storm-force winds extending hundreds of miles in every direction from its eye, Irma’s sheer size dwarfed other catastrophic hurricanes of the modern era.
At least 27 people died as Irma strafed several islands in the Caribbean.
Georgia will not experience the full force of Irma. As expected, the storm weakened Sunday after making landfall twice – first in the Florida Keys, then on Marco Island on Florida’s Gulf coast.
Still, officials in Valdosta said they expect hurricane-force winds – sustained at 74 mph or higher – for as long as six hours Monday. Along the Georgia coast, authorities predicted a day-long onslaught of wind and rain and a storm surge as high as 6 feet.
In metro Atlanta, forecasters said rain would begin overnight, with wind gusts picking up shortly after daybreak.
The strongest winds – 40 mph or more, with gusts to 60 mph – are expected between noon and midnight Monday, said Katie Walls, a meteorologist for Channel 2 Action News.
Bands of heavy, wind-driven rain will continually strike the region throughout the day, Walls said.
“It’ll be like a prolonged summertime thunderstorm, where we just get storm after storm,” she said. “We’ll be dealing with periods of intense rainfall and periods of intense wind.”
The forecast calls for 3 to 8 inches of rain across much of Georgia and as much as 12 inches in places. A flash-flood watch is in effect for much of the state until Tuesday.
The wind and rain could take another toll: the metro area’s tree canopy.
A wet summer left the ground unusually soft, and saturation from Irma’s rainfall could make many trees vulnerable. City officials in Alpharetta urged residents to cut down dead or damaged trees ahead of the storm. The city even waived a permit requirement, announcing on Twitter that a photo of the tree would suffice.
Utilities said Sunday they are prepared to respond to anticipated power outages across the state caused by wind and falling trees.
Another threat comes from untethered items left outdoors.
“My biggest concern is wind speed and the lack of preparation for really making sure things are tied down,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said. The wind, he said, can “turn these items into projectiles.”
Already, strong winds knocked off part of the facade of a 32-story office building at 34 Peachtree St. in downtown Atlanta. No one was injured, but police closed several streets near Five Points.
Prepared to pivot
As late as Friday, Savannah and other coastal communities had appeared to be destined for Irma’s toughest hit on Georgia. Most projections called for Irma to move through the Florida peninsula, re-emerge in the Atlantic Ocean and make landfall again along the Georgia coast. Deal signed a mandatory evacuation order for coastal areas.
But shifts in the hurricane’s path defied the forecasts and scrambled emergency preparations. In some cases, evacuees are finding danger in the places where they sought shelter.
Hurricane-force winds are headed to relatively unlikely parts of the state, including land-locked Albany and Valdosta. In Albany, Dougherty County officials advised residents to evacuate by 5 p.m. Sunday – or to stay home and face the storm alone.
“We’ve seen this (storm) pivot,” said Dougherty County Chairman Chris Cohilas. “We need to be able to pivot as well.”
In Valdosta, Ashley Tye, head of emergency services for Lowndes County, said he expects at least 24 hours of continuous winds above 50 mph by Tuesday morning. The worst, he said, could be mid-day Monday, when forecasts call for six hours of hurricane-force wind.
“It’d tickle me to death if the forecast isn’t as bad as they said,” Tye said. “But obviously we have to plan that the forecasters have nailed it, and unfortunately that doesn’t bode well for us.”
As in Valdosta, authorities in Columbus had not expected major impacts from Irma. Then the hurricane tracked west, apparently headed “right over the top of Columbus,” Police Chief Ricky Boren said Sunday. Boren canceled all vacations and assigned desk officers to patrol duty.
The Columbus Civic Center had been a designated shelter for evacuees from the coast, and on Sunday, 556 of them prepared to wait out a storm they thought they had left behind. Among them were Patrick Assonken and his family, who came to Columbus via a seven-hour school bus ride from Glynn County.
Still, Assonken said he didn’t regret fleeing the coast. And in Columbus, he said, “the people are awesome.”
Back on the coast, Savannah officials said they still are prepared for a significant storm, even if Irma won’t deliver a direct hit.
Officials there closed the Talmadge Bridge, a towering span over the Savannah River, and imposed a curfew from 10 p.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. Monday.
Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher vowed to jail all curfew violators, saying at a press conference they would become “a guest over in my bed and breakfast.” But that might be an empty threat. Other officials announced that as soon as the wind reaches tropical storm force, they will pull even police officers off the streets.
Staff writers Ben Brasch in Valdosta, Jennifer Brett in Savannah, Ellen Eldridge in Atlanta, Meris Lutz in Atlanta, Josh Sharpe in Albany and Ty Tagami in Columbus contributed to this story.