SAVANNAH, Ga. | Georgia’s governor on Thursday ordered nearly 540,000 coastal residents to evacuate inland ahead of Hurricane Irma as authorities warned the storm had the potential to strike as a major hurricane, something the Georgia coast hasn’t seen in more than a century.
“If there’s a freight train coming at you, then you get off the tracks,” said Jason Buelterman, mayor of Tybee Island, a beach community of more than 3,000 residents east of Savannah.
Gov. Nathan Deal ordered all six Georgia coastal counties to start evacuating at 8 a.m. Saturday. That’s when officials planned to turn all lanes of Interstate 16 into a one-way route inland, sending traffic west from Savannah.
It’s the second time in less than a year that Georgia coastal residents have been told to flee a storm. The last time was when Hurricane Matthew brushed the state’s 100-mile coast without coming ashore last October. That storm caused three deaths in Georgia and an estimated $500 million in damage.
Traffic was already heavy on Interstate 75 to Atlanta by Thursday afternoon with evacuees streaming out of Florida. Forecasts called for Irma’s center to be near the Georgia-Florida line Monday morning, though the exact path and storm intensity remained uncertain.
In Chatham County, Georgia’s most populous coastal county that includes Savannah, emergency management director Dennis Jones warned Irma could bash the coast with 15 feet of storm surge and force floodwaters up the Savannah and Ogechee Rivers, potentially swamping 60 percent of the county.
“What we saw during Matthew could exponentially increase,” Jones said.
He held out the possibility that Irma could strike Georgia as a Category 3 or greater hurricane. The last storm that powerful to make landfall on the Georgia coast struck in 1898.
Becky and Mike Gerald evacuated their Tybee Island condo a block from the beach for Matthew. Though that storm ripped away portions of some neighbors’ roofs and slung debris hard enough to smash windows, the couple returned to a home unscathed.
Even after the evacuation order was issued, they talked of riding out Irma at home.
“I may not go at Category 3 if the surge isn’t so high,” Mike Gerald said.
“I don’t know, honey,” his wife replied. “Where do we have to go except the bathroom and the back bedroom?”
Still, Becky Gerald said she planned to remain on the island as long as Irma wasn’t forecast to arrive as a major storm.
“There’s just things I can’t save,” she said. “I have all my mother’s antiques. You spend your whole life working hard and in a flash it’s all gone.”
No evacuations had been declared yet in neighboring South Carolina, which hasn’t had a major hurricane strike in nearly 28 years. But Ed Putnam wasn’t taking chances. He drove to St. Helena Island east of Beaufort, South Carolina, with a truckload of supplies to get his cabin, boat and sailboat storm-ready.
Putnam has no plans to stick around.
Irma had winds of 175 mph Thursday as it raked across Caribbean islands toward South Florida. Forecasters said tropical-storm- force winds could reach Georgia over the weekend and possibly South Carolina soon after.
“I’ve seen the videos of what happened to those poor people on those islands,” Putnam said of Irma’s devastation in the Caribbean. “If this is as strong as they say it is going to be, then there is no choice. Your life is more important than anything else.”
In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper told people to keep preparing for Irma even as projections had a weakened storm entering the state well inland early next week. He issued a statewide emergency declaration starting Thursday morning.
“This storm can impact any part of North Carolina — all over our state from the mountains to the coast,” Cooper said. “Just because that it might be at tropical storm strength doesn’t mean this storm isn’t going to be very dangerous.”