Area officials braced for a storm of evacuees in addition to threatening weather locally as Hurricane Irma barreled toward Miami on Thursday.
The Richmond County School System announced schools would be closed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week as it readied numerous gymnasiums to shelter Chatham County residents under an agreement with the coastal county.
Gov. Nathan Deal had declared as of Thursday 30 Georgia counties along the coast and inland as far north as Burke County under a state of emergency, with mandatory evacuation of Chatham and areas east of Interstate 95 set to begin Saturday.
Area hospitals are already receiving patients from coastal areas, including 14 high-risk babies en route to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at AU Medical Center from Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, officials said.
“We’re bracing for probably the worst hurricane that has ever hit in recent time,” Augusta Fire Chief and Emergency Management Agency Director Chris James said at a Thursday news conference. “The city of Augusta is in full preparation mode to deal with Hurricane Irma over the next week or so.”
James expected self-evacuees to exceed the number that arrived last October during Hurricane Matthew, when all of Augusta’s approximately 7,000 hotel rooms were full.
“We have an awful lot of citizens that are hosting people in their homes,” he said. “Our area will be very populated over the next week.”
The Augusta shelters will be managed by Red Cross shelter managers as they become available. Beyond that, city staff and Department of Family and Children Services workers will be assigned to the shelters, James said.
A list of shelter sites for locals and self-evacuees will be made available as the shelters open their doors, he said.
He urged residents and local government workers to get their own households ready for the hurricane, with supplies including at least three days’ worth of medications.
The National Hurricane Center late Thursday had the storm reaching Georgia by 2 p.m. Monday, with earlier impacts beginning Saturday. James said the hurricane may produce heavy rains and winds up to 50 to 60 miles per hour around Augusta.
The American Red Cross is deploying “hundreds and hundreds” of workers to the area, including numerous leadership staff and several pulled from Hurricane Harvey efforts in Texas, said Susan Everitt, executive director of the American Red Cross of Augusta.
Volunteers are still needed, she said, and should sign up on the Irma-specific form at redcross.org/volunteer.
Monetary donations to the Red Cross or other reputable charities are still needed more than donations of supplies, which can distract from shelters’ ability to meet immediate care needs of evacuees, Everitt said.
Officials who delayed evacuating coastal hospitals and nursing homes ahead of Matthew are acting sooner this time.
“I’m anticipating (Friday) and Saturday will be the peak of activity around this so we can accomplish the transfer of these patients in a controlled manner and as safely as possible,” said Shawn Vincent, chief operating officer for AUMC.
AUMC took in about 130 patients during Matthew and is prepared to do that and possibly more, he said.
“We are staffing up appropriately for this weekend and we really consider all personnel to be essential personnel,” Vincent said. “Even if you are not a clinician, if the need presents itself, then we certainly have plenty of team members that could hand out food, make sandwiches, sweep floors, make beds, do other things.”
James said Georgia Emergency Management Agency is routing approximately 60 law enforcement personnel to the area to assist. The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for law enforcement activity at the shelters and on Augusta streets, he said.
While Augusta bore the brunt of the region’s evacuation response during Matthew, James said this time more Georgia counties and cities are providing resources at GEMA’s direction.
Columbia County EMA has directed the opening at noon Friday a Red Cross evacuee shelter at Liberty Park in Grovetown, Grovetown officials said. The agency issued a statement recommending residents sign up for their Code Red mass notification system, monitor weather updates and seek a backup power source for home medical devices.
Augusta officials are holding another news conference at 10 a.m. Friday at Augusta Municipal Building, 535 Telfair St., to update residents on Irma preparations. At 11 a.m., the city will hold a barbecue, planned last week, to benefit the Hurricane Harvey relief effort.
Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-3215 or email@example.com.