A small group gathered in Oconee County’s emergency management office heard on Saturday what seemed like good news in a hurricane webinar from the National Weather Service’s Peachtree City Weather Station.
Hurricane Irma’s path had shifted to the west and would likely take the storm toward Alabama and away from Watkinsville and Athens as it made its way up from Florida.
“It looks a little bit better for us,” said Oconee County Emergency Management Agency Director C.J. Worden.
But he wasn’t counting too much on it just yet. With the storm still far to the south, conditions could change again, and anyway the good news was only relative. Even though the storm might be weaker than feared when it reaches northeast Georgia, it still seemed likely to be dangerous.
Our area might not get the sustained winds of 70 mph feared earlier, but the westward veering puts the Athens area on the side of the storm most prone to produce tornadoes, an NWS meteorologist told the Oconee group and others gathered to hear the webcast.
Any tornadoes might be hard to spot, wrapped in rain, but radar imaging would allow NWS forecasters to issue timely warnings.
As of early Saturday evening, the NWS forecast for the Athens area called for winds gusting up to 25 mph Sunday as the storm approached, then sustained wind of 20 to 30 mph on Monday with gusts up to 40 mph, with rain, possibly thunderstorms and possible isolated flooding. Almost the entire state was under a flash flood watch.
The weather will intensify Monday night, with winds 30 to 35 mph, gusting up to 50 mph — not quite the sustained speed defined as “tropical storm,” but strong enough to blow over many drought-stressed trees onto vehicles, houses, roads and power lines.
From Monday through Wednesday, north and central Georgia could expect 3 to 7 inches of rain, mainly during the earlier part of that period, with some areas getting higher amounts. The Athens area’s most likely scenario was 3 to 5 inches.
The forecast was much worse for parts of middle and south Georgia, which Irma would engulf earlier — winds gusting over 80 mph in Valdosta, with 10 inches or more of rain possible and “widespread” trees down and power outages.
“Hurricane conditions are possible,” was the Sunday forecast for Valdosta. “Hurricane conditions expected” was the Monday forecast there, meaning sustained winds of 74 mph.
State emergency management officials eased off Saturday on evacuation orders for Savannah, where the storm’s impact was now expected to be less than previously feared. Savannah’s forecast called for tropical storm conditions Sunday night and Monday.
Gov. Nathan Deal also returned Interstate Highway 16 to two-way traffic Saturday after 4 p.m. The highway had been made one-way earlier in the day for Savannah residents evacuating the city.
School and government officials are staying in close touch with emergency management and weather forecasters.
The University of Georgia announced it would cancel classes Monday shortly after the noon briefing, but Clarke County, Oconee County and other schools systems were waiting to see more of how the storm would develop before making a decision.