As Hurricane Irma ripped through the Caribbean on Wednesday it prompted local officials and agencies to spring into action for what’s ahead.
The Augusta chapter of the American Red Cross conducted training sessions for volunteers to help with any evacuees who come to the area to escape Irma.
Susan Everitt, director of the Augusta chapter, said plans are underway to have up to six shelters in place for those affected by the hurricane.
“Anything right now is very open and is subject to change,” she said. “Preparedness is No. 1 in our list.”
The local chapter for the Red Cross will conduct training sessions until Friday, Everitt said. Shelters are expected to open based on the numbers of evacuees and whether local residents will also be affected.
“There are lots of factors that go into it,” she said. “We have to anticipate the size and which is most comfortable for those who come to the area.”
Jim Beasley, the public service and information officer for the City of Augusta, said the city would use one or more community recreation centers to provide space for those in need of shelter.
“We are in contact with our response partners, including the American Red Cross and the local public health department,” he said. “Now is a good time for individuals to make smart decisions, and review their own plans and supplies in the event the storm comes this way.”
Some hotels along Washington Road are already being impacted by Irma, as several reported being completely booked.
Kendra Wedman, a front desk manager at the Quality Inn Suites on Washington Road, said a slew of reservations came in this week from Florida, South Carolina and even Savannah. She said rooms are booked through next weekend.
“We’ve been contacting other hotels along the strip to see if rooms are available, but they’re booked as well,” she said.
The Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center downtown is also fully booked. The earliest possible vacancies are Monday , said Christy Holley-Barnes, the group housing coordinator for the hotel and convention center.
Local hospitals are also making Irma preparations.
University Hospital received inquiries from patients who want to transfer to the area because of the storm. Augusta facilities are often the designated evacuation site for coastal providers. During Hurricane Matthew, the area received patients from Brunswick, Savannah, Hilton Head and other areas.
Shawn Vincent, the chief operating officer of AU Medical Center, said there have been discussions between physicians about referring patients from the potentially affected areas.
He said staff have already received a few inquiries, mainly from patients who want to come there, including “obstetrics patients from as far away as Jacksonville,” and that more calls are expected within the next 48 hours.
“We are evaluating the potential role we will need to play over the coming week to meet the needs of Georgians and those in the Southeastern U.S.,” Vincent said.
“We are collaborating with our clinical staff and others to make certain we are prepared for the acceptance of transfer patients from the coastal regions.”
The now Category 5 hurricane prompted South Carolina and Georgia governors, Henry McMaster and Nathan Deal, respectively, to issue state of emergency decrees Wednesday. Deal issued his for six counties – Bryan, Camden, Chatham, Glynn, Liberty and McIntosh.
Richmond County Emergency Management released a statement on Facebook ahead of the storm Tuesday to warn residents of possible impacts.
“Local impacts are uncertain at this time,” it states. “We are monitoring this storm closely. We encourage you to monitor Hurricane Irma and be prepared. Now is the time to check your emergency kit and review your important documents.”
Gas shortages are starting to pop up locally – this due to refineries being closed because of Hurricane Harvey.
The Shell station on Fury’s Ferry Road reported being out of unleaded gas and running low on preimum. The BP on Broad Street had a similar story. Neither stations knew when their next shipment would arrive.
Adam Leanza, the EMA director for Columbia County, said the agency has received several calls from residents since the threat of Irma surfaced earlier this week. His best recommendation for those concerned about the storm is, “Don’t panic, think smart.”
“The main thing that we’re telling people to do is not to panic right now,” he said. “There’s no need to panic. You don’t want to go out and buy things that can perish this far out.”
Leanza said the agency has been tracking its path and putting appropriate preparations in place. Preparations consist of ensuring staff and emergency responders have what they need to operate “if needed,” Leanza said.
“We’re doing everything we can since we have this much of a jump on it to be as prepared as possible, even though it’s still a big what if,” he said. “We’d rather prepare for the worst than let something surprise us.”
Leanza said people can prepare by making or reviewing family emergency plans and keeping abreast of updates from credible sources. He lists this as one of the biggest difficulties for the agency as people often turn to social media to track the storm.
Leanza said that often leads to misinformation, and the risk of revisiting warnings and threats from older storms in the area.
“The main thing we want people to do is listen to credible information,” he said. “We want them to look at reliable sources like the National Weather Service or National Hurricane Center and we are sharing the information from ready.gov. So that’s what we’re encouraging.”
He also recommends purchasing a weather radio and extra batteries in case a power outage occurs.
“That would be fantastic,” he said. “This is way out now, but if your power goes out, you will need to know what’s going on and your phone is only going to last so long.”
Residents can sign up for Code Red, an emergency notification system at the city website by clicking the information icon under the Emergency Management Communications tab.
Tom Corwin, Amanda King and Susan McCord contributed to this article.