Athens-area emergency planners are preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best as Hurricane Irma barrels her way north on a path that could carry the powerful storm straight up through Florida and into the middle of Georgia.
The latest projections as of Friday afternoon had Irma entering south Georgia at about noon Monday, on a path slightly to the west of earlier models and slowing down as it moved through Georgia, said University of Georgia climate scientist David Stooksbury, the former state climatologist.
That’s worrisome, he said. It puts Athens on the right side of the storm’s rotation, and that’s the side most likely to bear heavy rains, high winds and tornado activity.
Seven to 10 inches of rain and winds of 50 miles per hour, gusting higher, are “not out of the question,” he said.
Further north in Tennessee’s Cumberland plateau, there’s a risk of much higher amounts of rain, up to 20 inches, he said.
Heavy rains could bring localized flooding, but not the kind Houston experienced from Hurricane Harvey, he said.
But with the area’s already saturated soils and drought-stressed trees, high winds could bring down trees and contribute to widespread power outages, he said.
Athens’ most vulnerable period appears now to be late Monday into early Tuesday morning, he said.
“There’s a good possibility we’ll make it through most of the day on Monday without any issues,” he said.
But as of Friday afternoon, that was still three days away, and the storm’s strength, speed and path could change. Everyone should monitor the forecasts and tracking coming out of the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center, he advised.
“It’s a very dynamic situation,” he said.
A change of path 100 miles to the east or west would change dramatically what Athens can expect, he said.
Athens and many other places in north Georgia were already feeling some effects Friday.
Some gas stations in Eatonton were out of gas on Friday as fleeing Floridians used U.S. Highway 129 as an alternate to clogged I-75, said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills. Motorists also reported lots of northbound Florida traffic on U.S. Highway 441.
Motorists tweeted they couldn’t find gasoline a little further south in Milledgeville.
Even further north than Athens, motels hung out no vacancy signs, though in Athens as of Friday afternoon four lodging places actually had vacancies, said Sonya Dills of the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau.
As in other places, Athens area lodgings have been deluged with calls from people seeking refuge from Irma. But the advancing storm also led some groups to cancel meetings or conventions, so cancellations freed up some rooms, she said.
The Graduate, the Georgia Center for Continuing Education, Courtyard Athens and Country Inn and Suites still had rooms, she said.