With the governor's mandatory evacuation order in place for all Coastal Georgia counties, Chatham on Thursday rolled out plans to help citizens leave, including public transportation to inland shelters for those without their own vehicle and the one-waying of Interstate 16.
The eye of Hurricane Matthew was expected to make landfall and skirt along the east coast of Florida today and hug the coast until it reaches Savannah sometime late tonight and into Saturday morning. The effects of the storm -- the rain bands and wind -- may begin early today. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 60 miles from the center, and tropical storm force winds extend outward up to 185 miles, according to the National Hurricane Center.
As of late Thursday, the storm had moved through the Bahamas and was approaching Florida with maximum winds of 140 mph. The storm is moving northwest at 13 mph. Forecasters are calling for strong storm surge in Coastal Georgia and rainfall totals anywhere from 6 to 15 inches depending on how close communities are to the coast. The eye of the storm is predicted to make a right turn and begin to head out into the Atlantic on Saturday afternoon, the NHC reported.
Chatham County Commission Chairman Al Scott said he told Gov. Nathan Deal on Thursday morning he had updated the evacuation order locally to include mandatory evacuation of all islands and low-lying areas. Deal suggested the more extensive mandatory evacuation.
"He said, 'What about the rest of the county?' I said we're urging them to leave. He said, 'Let's make it mandatory' and I said I don't have a problem with that, governor."
Scott said he had to consider a worst-case scenario.
"I think we'll be just fine. But like the governor said to me, what if it moves west? It'll be on top of you. I said you're absoutely right, governor, that's where I don't disagree with your call."
That uncertainty over the track of Hurricane Matthew made the decision tougher.
"When you tell people it hasn't changed track but ask them to leave, you have to explain why," Scott said. "The why is the uncertainty. If that hurricane moved just a little bit west, Chatham County would be inundated. They were talking about up to 11-foot (storm) surge."
Deal, who authorized up to 1,000 National Guard members to assist, said he is satisfied with his evacuation orders.
"We believe that we made the declaration within the window that gave people adequate time to evacuate. We did not want to do so unnecessarily. It is very disruptive for people to up and leave their homes, business, etc."
So what exactly does a mandatory evacuation mean?
"It means that technically you're urged by the governor and myself, and I'm just going to emphasize what the governor said," Scott said. "They cannot force you to leave your home."
Under Georgia law, both elected local officials and the governor are able to call for an evacuation "when deemed necessary to protect lives." But according to the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency's current hurricane plan, no Georgia governor had ever invoked that authority when the 2013 plan was written. GEMHSA spokeswoman Catherine Howden was unable to confirm Thursday if Deal's evacuation order was a gubernatorial first. Chatham officials have typically made the call in the past, for example with Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Those who choose not to evacuate should know what they're facing.
"If you decide to hunker down and weather the storm you must be aware of the possibility of power outages for several days," Scott said. "You might not be able to get emergency assistance."
That's especially worrisome on Tybee, which is not only low lying but also has only one road out, U.S. 80, which is prone to flooding. Emergency managers called for the evacuation of Tybee and the islands east of the Wilmington River as well as all low lying areas near rivers on Wednesday and the mandatory evacuation of Tybee Island began at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
By noon, CAT buses began transporting residents to the Savannah Civic Center where those without private transportion can catch school buses headed to inland shelters. Regular bus service is suspended and instead those without other transportation can go to their closest bus stop for this service. Fees are waived for the evacuation, with CAT buses ferrying evacuees to the Civic Center until midnight.
School buses will continue to leave the Civic Center for shelters through noon Friday, but evacuees had to find their own way to the Civic Center after midnight. Pets are allowed but should have tags, proof of vaccinations and a travel carrier or leash. A limited supply of carriers are available for those in need. Pets will be housed at a shelter separate from their owners. Service animals are accepted in all shelters.
At 2 p.m. the contraflow of I-16 was established, reversing eastbound lanes to flow west instead. The process took about three hours while traffic built up in the normal westbound lanes. The contraflow infrastructure, including traffic arms to block on and off ramps where necessary, was built in the wake of Hurricane Floyd in 1999. That evacuation made I-16 a parking lot and created 12-14 hours journeys to inland shelters. Today is the first time the new contraflow plan is being tested in an evacuation.
Five of the county's 24 nursing homes and assisted living facilities chose to evacuate, said Dennis Jones, interim director of the Chatham Emergency Management Agency. The others are sheltering in place. Area hospitals are not evacuating. Neither is the county jail, which was built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane.
Residents who are evacuating should plan to leave by noon today, about six hours ahead of the expected onset of tropical storm conditions, Jones said.
After the storm, officials expect it to take several days to make sure evacuees can re-enter the county safely.
"If we didn't have much damage our render safe operation would go pretty quickly," Jones said. "Establishing essential services should take another day or two days if it's not too bad. We can probably get people back in three days with minor effects."
That's three days from the end of the storm, putting the return date likely at Tuesday or Wednesday in a best case scenario, Jones said.
AU Medical Center in Augusta has received 25 patients from areas likely to be impacted by the storm and another 30 were on the way Thursday night, mostly from the Brunswick and St. Marys areas, said Shawn Vincent, interim Chief Operating Officer for the hospital.
The hospitals have been talking with Georgia Emergency Management officials for the last two days and many had initially planned not to move patients until state officials late Wednesday night shared new information on the storm’s projected path and potential storm surges that could top 9 feet and might inundate those areas, Vincent said.
Fortunately, the hospital had already activated its disaster plan and was prepared to get a surge of patients, he said. Because it had been in the process of opening 25 more staffed beds anyway to meet its own demand, there is capacity for more, Vincent said.
“I actually think we can handle quite a bit more,” he said. “We have several more beds that are open and staffed and the rooms are available, private rooms we didn’t have available just over a year ago. That’s also helping. “
The plan is to continue that throughout the weekend, Vincent said.