Hurricane Irma roared toward South Florida Sunday morning as a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds.
Nearly 7 million people were under evacuation orders on Saturday as the frightening storm savaged Cuba and then began turning northwest for its assault on the Florida Keys.
Clove Cooper, 68, was among those evacuees, given that he lives in a double-wide by a river in rural southeast Georgia.
“Staying there is suicide,” Cooper said at the shelter at Ware County High School in Waycross Saturday. “This storm here’s devastating. It might change. Only God can say, but why would you chance it?”
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Irma is expected to arrive in metro Atlanta Monday afternoon, with 3 to 7 inches of rain and winds gusting up to 60 mph, Channel 2 Action News meteorologists say. High winds tear into the pines and oaks in our City of Trees, bringing down power lines as the branches fall.
Atlanta is accustomed to seeing downed trees during a hard thunderstorm, but this will not be that.
“Times 10,” said Peter Jenkins, president of TreeInspection.com. “It’s one thing to have straight-line winds that last a minute. This one’s going to be sustained winds that are going to be much worse that just a regular thunderstorm.”
The storm’s track, as of early Sunday, will take it into South Georgia and then southwest of metro Atlanta, Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Katie Walls said. Irma will be weakening all the while but will still be strong enough to do some damage in Atlanta.
The storm was centered about 70 miles southeast of Key West at 2 a.m. Sunday, with minimum sustained winds of 130 mph, a Category 4 storm.
Irma was expected to track up the western coast in the morning, wreaking destruction from the Keys up to Tampa Bay and beyond. Storm surge warnings, signaling the danger of life-threatening inundation, were issued for the Keys and southwestern Florida, including Tampa Bay. The warning for Naples, one of the southernmost cities on Florida’s Gulf Coast, predicted a surge of 10 to 15 feet.
Walls said heavy squalls with embedded tornadoes had already begun to strike across the southern end of the peninsula by 8 p.m. As of 2:10 a.m., nearly 243,000 Florida Power & Light customers had lost power, the Palm Beach Post reported.
In a twist of fortunes for which hurricanes are famous, Irma veered off a course that had it aiming directly for Georgia’s coast and began a slow turn westward. The state reversed the eastbound lanes of I-16 (from Macon to Savannah) Saturday morning, only to un-reverse them Saturday afternoon. The entire road was a westbound freeway, but few people were using the extra lanes to go inland.
The evacuee’s lament
Saturday in Georgia was filled with stories of people who had been pushed far from home and people who said the hell with it and stayed put.
At their home just south of Fort Myers, Fla., the Pipitone family almost got flooded out during Hurricane Harvey – yes, the one that hit Texas. Alexandra Pipitone wasn’t taking any chances on Irma. She and her husband packed up their Coleman stove, canned food and water and set out for East Atlanta early Thursday with their two young children.
They joined thousands of people from across Florida and the Georgia coast who are flocking to metro Atlanta and other parts of the state.
After riding out Hurricane Matthew last year, Jessica Davila didn’t want to stay in Savannah this time around. Last time, she didn’t have power for two weeks and ran out of formula for her 4-month-old.
The Davila clan – Jessica, her husband, her children, her mom, stepdad, brother, niece and nephew — caravanned to Dublin in three cars, carrying pictures, important papers and a week’s worth of clothes.
“Not having a lot of money and having to leave everything we own behind, it’s stressful,” she said. “We don’t have no choice.”
Eileen Smith, who lives in Daytona Beach and wanted to stay there, said her daughter in Decatur wouldn’t leave her alone.
“She just nagged and nagged and nagged. I couldn’t take it,” Smith said. “I think it’s silly, but it makes her happy.”
Smith said she lives in a “shack” near the Intracoastal Waterway but expected her house would remain standing. She said she’s heading back as soon as the rain stops.
Not a problem for Frank Melton, a 70-year-old semi-retired truck driver in rural Brantley County.
Under the threat of flooding, you probably wouldn’t want to live by a river. With forecasters warning of tornadoes spinning off a hurricane, you’d really prefer not to live in a mobile home. If there were a mandatory evacuation across the whole county for people in trailers, you’d likely be tempted to leave.
But you are not Frank Melton.
He lives in a trailer on 10-foot stilts on the Satilla River in Atkinson, Ga. – a trailer with “Redneck Riviera” emblazoned on the side – and he says he’s ready for whatever comes.
“I wanna stay here and keep an eye on things,” Melton said.
Should I stay or should I go?
Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency in 94 counties and ordered evacuations in all coastal counties east of I-95. But even after he modified the order for Savannah on Saturday, making the evacuation voluntary, hundreds of people crowded the Savannah Civic Center, seeking a ride inland.
Authorities are using the center as a staging area for people who have no independent means of leaving, with buses set to carry them to storm shelters.
The long lines didn’t seem to be moving Saturday morning, even though the latest news indicated that this historic coastal town wouldn’t suffer the ferocity expected in central Georgia.
“We were here last year and it was nothing like this,” Chelsea Mcelveen, 22, said, amidst the crowd that had reached the civic center’s glass doors. Her daughter, 4, stood by her side, and her 3-year-old son was cradled in the arms of fiancé Darrien Rawls, who said it took all of 10 minutes to get on a bus last year.
Neither was looking forward to what comes next: several days on a hard floor. Last year, they slept in an Augusta school gym, with no pads or cushions for most of their stay. They live near the Ogeechee River on the city’s south side and were concerned about flooding.
“The only reason we’re leaving is for the safety of the kids,” Rawls said.
Officials made special provisions for the disabled, taking them into the civic center through the back doors. But the sense of dislocation was still hard to shake.
Gloria Daniels, 70, was making her way in with a rolling walker.
“I’m thinking about going back home,” she said, surveying the crowd. “There’s a million people here.”
She lives in a low-lying area susceptible to flooding, and decided to leave because her daughter told her to. She had no idea where authorities planned to take her.
“I’m getting on the bus and going for a ride.”
No panic here in Atlanta?
Bottled water vanished from store shelves all over metro Atlanta on Friday and Saturday — probably enough water to flood most of metro — and local residents were pumping gas as if someone had imposed an embargo.
One in 10 gas station across the state were out of fuel on Saturday, according to Patrick DeHaan, a senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy. The shortages weren’t so pronounced in Atlanta, unless you found one of the 6 percent of stations that had run out. In Savannah, DeHaan said, 24 percent of stations were outta gas, the highest reate in the state.
DeHaan said the double blow of Irma evacuations and Harvey’s hit on Texas refineries was behind the shortages. And the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores said the volume of traffic on the highways was slowing down stores’ efforts to resupply locations that had run dry.
Motorists around the state reported that some locations were rationing, limited purchases to $10.
“Three or four days after Irma passes, it should start to improve,” DeHaan said.
The day after a mandatory evacuation went into effect on Tybee Island, most stores and restaurants were closed and boarded up. Plywood covered many homes' windows, and benches and picnic tables had been turned upside down. A stiff wind whipped trees back and forth and water in the marshes along the causeway from Savannah lapped at the road.
A perfect time to go surfing, Noah Mosely and Will Waters figured.
"It's pretty windy," Mosely said. "Really fun waves. The biggest I've surfed this season — the best."
He was coming in about 11:30 a.m. but said he'd be back: "To hell with the storm."
Out of the frying pan …
At a shelter at Crosspointe Church in Valdosta, some evacuees had traveled long distances from Florida. And some had driven over from across town.
Evacuees from coastal Georgia found that they had left an area where the threat from Irma appeared to be diminishing, and come to a place where the threat was definitely increasing.
Valdosta is expected to receive tropical-storm force winds, if not worse, when the storm crosses the border from Florida. Some models showed Irma would still be a Category 1 hurricane when it enters the Peach State.
Larry Brandon didn’t know Valdosta was in the storm’s path until he got to the church to help Saturday morning. So Brandon was at the shelter talking to evacuees with thoughts in the back of his mind about his own home, which has flooded before during heavy rains.
“I try to block it out,” he said. “My anxiety is rising a bit.”
Brandon, 66, said he planned to go home at some point to prepare his house for the storm.
“Every time you look at it, it gets worse,” he said.
School closings announced
The University of Georgia said Saturday it has canceled Monday’s classes and will decide Monday whether to reopen on Tuesday. The Savannah College of Art and Design pushed back the start of its school year for its Atlanta and Savannah campuses until after the storm passes, and Georgia Southern University in Statesboro said it will close through Tuesday.
School systems in Clayton, Henry, Rockdale and Butts counties have already called off school Monday; the latter three have also canceled for Tuesday. DeKalb, Gwinnett, Fulton and Atlanta schools all posted notices on their websites that they are monitoring conditions but, as of Saturday night, had not decided to cancel school.
States of emergency have been declared in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where three of the deaths occurred.
The Southern Region of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service waived fees and made all campgrounds, including the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests in Gainesville, available for individuals displaced by Irma and Harvey.
For people evacuating with animals, the Georgia Department of Agriculture has temporarily suspended Animal Interstate Movement Health Requirements for those entering Georgia from Florida.
The Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter in Perry is acting as a horse evacuation site and has 350 stalls available.
The threat of Irma has prompted government agencies, schools and ports along coastal Georgia and other parts of the state to make adjustments.
Contributing: staff writers Jennifer Brett, Arielle Kass, Ben Brasch, David Wickert, Mitchell Northam and Kelly Yamanouchi.