As storms spinning in the Atlantic Ocean are liable to do, Hurricane Florence appeared to be changing course on Wednesday, prompting Gov. Nathan Deal to declare a state of emergency and President Donald Trump to warn Georgia residents, “Be ready, be prepared!”
While mandatory evacuations are underway in parts of South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, no evacuations have been ordered in Georgia. But officials expect the storm to drench the Peach State over the weekend after the hurricane’s eye makes landfall early Friday near the border between North and South Carolina. The storm’s strength was lowered to a Category 3, then, unexpectedly, to a Category 2 on Wednesday — meaning its wind speeds are up to 110 mph.
Though the storm was expected to weaken greatly by the time it’s over Georgia, officials are concerned about flooding in the northeast section of the state and wind damage on the coast.
“I encourage Georgians to be prepared for the inland effects of the storm as well as the ensuing storm surge in coastal areas,” Deal said.
Deal’s state of emergency declaration will make it easier for the state to free up resources for storm response.
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The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency is in regular contact with the National Weather Service while leading state efforts to prepare. On Thursday morning, the agency intends to go into Level 1 operations, the highest level. That means an increase in the number of people from various agencies working together at the state’s emergency command center in Atlanta.
The most concern about Florence’s threat to Georgia is along the coast, where people remember last year’s Hurricane Irma, which flooded homes from Tybee Island to St. Mary’s, traumatized residents who had to wade to safety through ravaged landscapes. Irma struck Georgia one year ago, on Sept. 11 and was blamed for three deaths in the state.
Coastal officials urged residents Wednesday to stock up on supplies, stay indoors and remain vigilant as Florence approaches, though they said the risks of flooding on the Georgia coast and storm surge damage are low at this point.
“Based on what we are seeing, we don’t feel the evacuation order is needed,” Dennis Jones, Chatham County’s director of emergency management, told reporters at a news conference in Savannah. “We do encourage all residents, however, if they feel like they need to do something to protect their family — we encourage them to do that.”
Glynn County, where residents were barred last year from returning home from an evacuation for several days after Irma, officials are sending a similar message: monitor the storm and be safe — but don’t panic.
Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Brad Nitz said he didn’t expect metro Atlanta to see many problems from the storm. But he reminded: “This is still an evolving and fluid situation.”
That means all should keep a close eye on the latest forecast, which changed several times Wednesday and is expected to shift again as the storm continues to churn forward.
The evacuees pouring into Georgia from the Carolinas have seen the projections about how hard their states could be hit.
Melody Rawson of Myrtle Beach, S.C. had plenty to worry about when she and family headed for Atlanta: “We have a son in wheelchair, two dogs, three more adults, a bird, and we live in apartment on the first floor 10 minutes from ocean.”
The whole crew arrived at 3 a.m. Wednesday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where the owners have opened the gates for storm evacuees to camp. Later in the morning, they were about to pitch a tent and pray the rain doesn’t make them miserable while they wait out Florence.
The speedway is one piece of Georgians’ efforts to help neighboring states. Georgia’s animal shelters are also boarding pets and at least one hospital has taken patients from South Carolina.
Atlanta attractions and restaurants are offering special deals for travelers. The state emergency agency is working to connect people with hotels and other places to stay, and the Georgia Department of Transportation is trying to keep the interstates from getting too choked.
Georgia-based businesses were also responding to needs in other states.
Home Depot had sent more than 500 truckloads of materials to the Carolinas, many of them from a large distribution center in McDonough, the company said.
UPS said it was following evacuation orders at its facilities in other states, as well as making sure employees were able to have time to secure their homes.
Georgia Power said it remains ready to send crews out-of-state to help restore utilities, but only after making sure they aren’t needed here. Electricity cooperative workers in the state were preparing to deploy if needed.
Plant Vogtle, the Augusta-area nuclear power plant of which Georgia Power owns a large stake, has been inspected to make sure it’s safe during the storm, said Roger Hannah of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“Current projections show that the site is only expecting some higher than normal winds and some rain, but no conditions that would warrant shutting the units down or declaring any emergency level,” Hannah said.
Georgia Power said it was securing the sites of two nuclear units under construction at the plant.
On the coast, the Georgia Port Authority said the Port of Savannah, an important economic engine for the state, remained in normal operations Wednesday.
But officials were waiting to see if the U.S. Coast Guard halts Savannah River cargo ship traffic, something that could happen as early as Thursday morning. The hope is to avoid having ships in port if a tough storm strikes.
Though the projections for Georgia remained hard to pin down Wednesday, most everyone seemed to agree on one thing: the Carolinas are in for a hard hit from a storm that could be catastrophic.
Delta Air Lines cancelled 70 flights, which had mostly been scheduled for Thursday, to and from cities on the coasts of North and South Carolina.
Channel 2 said Myrtle Beach, where Melody Rawson and family fled that first floor apartment near the water, looked like a ghost town.
Staff writers Jeremy Redmon, John Spink, Matthew Kempner, Anastaciah Ondieki, Kelly Yamanouchi and Michael E. Kanell contributed to this report.