Georgia braces as Hurricane Irma barrels toward the U.S.

With record-setting strength and speed, deadly Hurricane Irma is now within days of striking the southeastern U.S. The powerful storm shows no signs of weakening, though Irma’s path is still unpredictable, forecasters said.

But Georgia is already bracing for the storm’s impact, making room for Florida evacuees, while keeping its own residents safe, especially along the vulnerable coast.

It’s time to prepare for the worst, experts warned, and prepare for the category 5 storm which is one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever, packing 185 mph winds. The storm’s path is critical because it could cause tornado conditions for metro Atlanta.  “If you have friends along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts and also Florida, make sure they are doing their hurricane preparations now,” Brian Monahan, Channel 2 Action News meteorologist, said Wednesday afternoon.

Irma already has the attention of federal and state leaders, including the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, which warned residents to plan now and create a “ready” kit of essential items in case evacuation is necessary.

“We are closely monitoring developing conditions — working with state, federal and local officials to prepare for potential impacts,” GEMA posted on Twitter.

Gov. Nathan Deal issued a state of emergency for six coastal counties Wednesday afternoon, covering cities including Savannah, Brunswick, St. Marys and the islands of Tybee, St. Simons and Jekyll. States of emergency were earlier declared in South Carolina, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virigin Islands.

In Georgia, Irma brings overhauled storm response strategy and the most significant challenge yet for the new head of the state’s emergency management agency. Deal tapped Homer Bryson, a former corrections commissioner, to lead the agency shortly after Hurricane Matthew killed four people and left tens of millions of damage in its wake after scraping the shoreline last October.

The Red Cross said Wednesday that aid continues for those impacted by Hurricane Harvey, but will focus on Irma’s path. Shelter locations for Georgia have not yet been announced, but Valdosta’s CrossPointe Church, which has previously opened its doors to serve as a shelter, was preparing to again serve storm evacuees.

Pastor David Rogers said 250 people slept at the church during Hurricane Matthew, and since then, a new facility has been built. Now, CrossPointe should be able to provide cots, blankets and warm meals to at least 700, Rogers said.

Late Wednesday, a nursing home near the Georgia coast was making plans to bring as many as 150 residents and staff members to the church.

“We may end up canceling Sunday services,” Rogers said. “We just feel it’s that important.”

Dennis Jones, director of the Chatham Emergency Management Agency, said the latest predictions would require a Savannah evacuation to possibly begin Saturday night, and special needs populations, such as those who need medical care – would begin even earlier.

In a Facebook Live press conference, Jones said a county-supervised evacuation would send residents to Augusta. There will also be a pet shelter there, he said. Jones added that those who decide to leave on their own should head west, to Dublin, Macon and Atlanta.

Many hotels along the I-75 corridor stretching from Florida to Georgia were also booked through the weekend. The manager of the Wingate by Wyndham in Warner Robins expects the first Irma evacuees to arrive Thursday.

Natalie Dale, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation, said that contractors started last weekend clearing road shoulders of debris and removing flood-inducing blockages from drains ahead of the storm.

“Recognize that many of our Florida neighbors are coming our way,” she advised Georgia drivers. “Be prepared to adjust local travel plans recognizing that certain routes (interstates, notably) may be more congested than usual.”

Many hotels from the state line heading north were also booked through the weekend. The manager of the Wingate by Wyndham in Warner Robins expects the first Irma evacuees to arrive Thursday.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said he expects the city will be a destination for many trying to avoid the storm. “We expect for the airport to be very busy and for the highways to be very busy,” he said. Reed said the city is in discussions with federal and state emergency management officials.

The city has been engaged in hurricane prep since Harvey struck Texas last month, and officials have pivoted toward Irma in recent days.

Atlanta Motor Speedway, which has camping facilities for thousands of fans who attend NASCAR races, said Wednesday those campgrounds will be open for evacuees. The campgrounds will be free and can accommodate RVs and tents and will be available beginning Thursday, a speedway spokesman said.

School systems and colleges in Irma’s path were also watching for potential developments that could impact classes. The Savannah College of Art and Design has delayed the start of classes for a week.

It will likely be Monday before Hurricane Irma brings rain to metro Atlanta, forecasters said. But that depends on where the center of the storm passes. Depending on Irma’s path, the Atlanta-area could see tornadoes, according to Channel 2 Meteorologist Brad Nitz.

If the center of Hurricane Irma passes east of metro Atlanta, then our area will be spared the risk of tornadoes,” Nitz said. “The tornado threat will be to the right of the track, or the eastern side of the storm in this situation.”

 - Staff writers Bo Emerson, Ben Brasch and Greg Bluestein contribued to this report.

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