Georgia, a refuge for evacuees as this week ends, is likely to find itself in Hurricane Irma’s crosshairs when the new week begins.
As a convoy of vehicles from Florida trudged up I-75 North toward Atlanta, with traffic snarls starting 50 miles outside of the city, Gov. Nathan Deal on Thursday ordered all areas east of I-95 and other parts of the state’s coast to evacuate.
But the latest European model — traditionally the most accurate — of the megastorm’s path indicates Georgia’s Golden Isles may get a break.
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The model shows a “significant shift to the west,” said Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Brad Nitz, sending Irma inland once it crosses into Georgia around 2 p.m. Monday. By then, the hurricane is expected to be downgraded to a Category 1, which still carries winds as high as 90 mph, Nitz said.
Storm surges of up to 3 feet are possible, he said, causing significant erosion “comparable and even worse than we saw last year with (Hurricane) Matthew.”
Metro Atlanta should brace for “solid tropical storm conditions” starting late Monday afternoon into Tuesday morning, Nitz said.
“We’re talking sustained winds of 40 to perhaps 50 mph,” he said. Gusts could surpass 60 mph in the northeast Georgia mountains, with the possibility of tornadoes greatest in the eastern part of the state.
Of course, that could all change. Georgians are preparing for the worst, just in case.
The mandatory evacuation order, which takes effect Saturday, includes all of Chatham County and some areas west of I-95 that also could be impacted by Irma’s storm surge. Deal has declared a state of emergency in 30 counties: Appling, Atkinson, Bacon, Brantley, Bryan, Bulloch, Burke, Camden, Candler, Charlton, Chatham, Clinch, Coffee, Echols, Effingham, Emanuel, Evans, Glynn, Jenkins, Jeff Davis, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Pierce, Screven, Tattnall, Toombs, Treutlen, Wayne and Ware.
Deal has set a 10 a.m. press conference on Friday with the head of Georgia’s emergency management agency and other public safety officials to outline the state’s storm response. GEMA opened a command center Thursday morning in preparation for the storm. Also, up to 5,000 Georgia National Guard members will be available to assist this weekend.
“I encourage all Georgians in our coastal areas that could be impacted by this storm to evacuate the area as soon as possible,” Deal said.
They may have to leave Georgia to find a place to stay. As of Thursday afternoon, 98 percent of metro Atlanta hotels were booked from this weekend into the following week, according to one popular travel site.
Some Irma evacuees were settling in at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Henry County. The facility is accustomed to handling thousands of campers for NASCAR events and evacuees will have free access to hot showers and restroom facilities, speedway officials said.
Many from South Florida’s Orthodox Jewish community have found ample shelter in metro Atlanta, thanks to two local rabbis who recruited 210 families to house 600 of the 950 evacuees who requested help via an online sign-up, said Hillel Glazer, president of Young Israel synagogue in Toco Hill.
The Red Cross opened one shelter Thursday night at the Delores A. Brooks Recreation Center at 3326 Ocmulgee Boulevard in Macon, with additional facilities available as needed.
Traffic is expected to remain heavy on Friday. Capt. Mark Perry, a Georgia State Patrol spokesman, said the agency is prepared to deal with travel challenges before and after the storm.
He said all troopers are on standby across the state to fill a variety of roles. “That will range from an initial complement of troopers sent in preparation to begin contra-flow on I-16 … to performing security and re-entry functions after the storm,” Perry said.
Meanwhile, in South Georgia, the bright sun belied the approaching storm.
In Waycross, Frank Sikes of Sikes Distribution, which sells water to local businesses, has been inundated with requests from residents who haven’t been able to find any at stores.
“If I had a debit card reader,” Sikes said, “I’d be a millionaire right now.”
He had just left Lowe’s, where shoppers spotted his van and came over to see if he’d sell them any of his product. They bought it all.
Sikes said he has never seen such a mad rush on bottled water.
“It is serious, but it seems like they’re pushing that this is more epic than the last one,” he said. “Everybody I’ve talked to has said, ‘Dude, have you seen the news?’”
Across town, at the Walmart Neighborhood Market, the parking lot overflowed with customers loading up on water and other supplies.
Retired educator Roy Lott lifted several cases into his SUV.
“This area has not been hit in a while. We’re not as worried as people who have been hit,” Lott said. “But they’re saying it could hit as a Category 1.”
Lott said his family plans to take in visitors — 20 to 25 of them — from the coasts of Georgia and Florida.
In Savannah, Irma evacuees heading west on I-16 hit a solid wall of traffic around Exit 98, a few miles west of Metter. But it had nothing to do with the hurricane. Several emergency vehicles and a logging truck could be seen from the eastbound lanes ahead of the logjam. Another arboreal obstruction — a tree trimming — greeted travelers right as I-16 met I-75, backing up traffic a good bit.
It was a different story in downtown Savannah, where, despite optimal weather, both the sidewalks and the streets were significantly less crowded than usual. What tourists remained may have been disappointed to see the historic Girl Scout First Headquarters all boarded up, in accordance with the Girl Scouts’ motto, “Be prepared.”
» Staff writers Ben Brasch, Joshua Sharpe and Jennifer Brett contributed to this article.