Authorities along the Georgia coast Wednesday ratcheted up preparations for Hurricane Matthew, a dangerous Category 3 storm described by Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Brian Monahan as the strongest storm in the Atlantic in about 10 years.
The National Weather Service announced at 11 p.m. that the hurricane, with winds of 115 mph, was about 325 miles southeast of West Palm Beach, Fla. It was just north of Cuba, about 125 miles from the Bahamas.
Reconnaissance aircraft reported that Matthew had weakened slightly, but it is expected to intensify later Wednesday and Thursday.
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The hurricane watch earlier had been extended northward to the Savannah River.
Forecasters predict the hurricane will be near Florida’s Atlantic coast by Thursday evening. By Friday night, the center of Matthew is expected to be less than 100 miles from the Georgia coast, Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Brad Nitz said.
Gov. Nathan Deal expanded the state of emergency Wednesday night from 13 to 30 counties in the southeastern region of Georgia. He also warned against price gouging. Deal issued an additional executive order waiving rules and regulations for commercial motor vehicles transporting emergency supplies.
Governors in three other states — Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina — also declared states of emergency and prepared evacuation plans.
Georgia’s state of emergency includes 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.
Coastal Georgia faces a 20 percent chance of getting hurricane force winds, a designation that applies to sustained winds of at least 74 mph, Nitz said.
On Tybee Island, government buildings were boarded up and a mandatory evacuation went into effect at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
“We want to make sure that people are preparing for the worst,” Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman said. “We hope for the best but we have to be preparing for the possibility that this will be a direct hit.”
Shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, Amtrak announced the suspension of all of its service in the Southeast region.
Passengers with travel plans can confirm their train's status, change their plans or review refund information on Amtrak.com, via smartphone apps or by calling 800-USA-RAIL. Service alerts, passenger notices and other announcements are posted at Amtrak.com/alerts.
Reports of heavy traffic heading north along I-95 in Florida began at mid-afternoon Wednesday.
The Florida Department of Transportation suspended tolls on State Road 528 because of the evacuations in Brevard County and halted construction work on interstates and evacuation route roadways.
Several closures were announced ahead of Matthew's arrival in Georgia.
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge announced it will be closed Thursday.
"Although Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is not immediately on the coastline, we are expecting tropical storm force winds and approximately 5 inches of rain during the day on Friday based on the most recent weather predictions," the organization said in a news release.
Georgia departments of driver services in Chatham, Effingham, Bulloch, Liberty, Glynn and Camden counties will be closed Friday and Saturday. The agencies may decide Thursday morning to close Thursday as well.
Ports in Miami, Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale and Cape Canaveral are closed to cruise ships until further notice.
Anyone expecting to visit government and public service buildings should check for potential closures before heading out.
Georgia’s Red Cross disaster officer Chris Baker encouraged people to seek shelter and heed all official warnings.
“This is a powerful storm and people should get ready now,” Baker said. “If someone is asked to evacuate, they should leave. We’re collaborating with our local emergency partners and will have shelters available where they can escape the dangers of the storm.”
Hurricane Matthew swept across a remote area of Haiti on Tuesday, and government leaders said they weren’t close to fully gauging its impact, The Associated Press reported. At least 11 deaths have been blamed on the storm, with five of them in Haiti.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp encourages Georgians to research the organizations seeking donations for disaster relief efforts in Haiti to avoid being scammed by fake charities.
“When a catastrophe of this nature occurs, con artists seize the opportunity to prey on donors by holding themselves out as legitimate charitable organizations,” Kemp said. “Do not be fooled by these scams. There are several, helpful resources that will help you verify the existence of a charity and make sure your contribution will reach Haiti’s hurricane victims in a meaningful way.”
The hurricane was spreading high winds, pounding rain and a dangerous storm surge ahead of its approach on the Bahamas.
Georgia has not had a direct hit from a hurricane in more than a century.
Airports were operating as normal, according to the Federal Aviation Administration website, but Delta Air Lines warned that Matthew could affect flights going to and from Florida and parts of the Caribbean.
Delta is offering travelers change fee waivers for travel to and from Jamaica, the Bahamas, Haiti, Turks and Caicos, and the coastal U.S.
Matthew could also affect the University of Georgia’s football game at South Carolina on Saturday night. School officials are monitoring the weather conditions to decide if they’re going to have to move the game or cancel it.
According to the South Carolina athletics website, posted at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday: "We are in communication with the National Weather Service, state and local authorities and the SEC regarding potential weather issues. We anticipate a decision about the game to be made on Thursday."
Today: Breezy. Sunny. High: 82
Tonight: Mostly clear. Low: 64
Tomorrow: Breezy. Mostly sunny. High: 81
» For a detailed forecast, visit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution weather page.
Take a jacket. It may get breezy Wednesday and stay that way throughout the week.
The Category 3 hurricane making its way through the Caribbean could bring wind gusts up to 25 mph to metro Atlanta, according to Channel 2.
“We are looking for our area to be on the light side of the winds,” meteorologist Karen Minton said.
The impact on metro Atlanta, which is “well away from the influence of Hurricane Matthew,” is expected to be minimal, Minton said.
“No rain around Atlanta,” Nitz said.
Temperatures were 71 degrees in Atlanta, 64 in Blairsville and 70 in Griffin just before 11 p.m.
Highs could drop to the upper 70s Friday but are otherwise expected to remain in the 80s.