As Hurricane Irma projected a path toward Georgia Friday, state and local officials continued to warn people not to take the storm lightly.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal reiterated his mandatory evacuation order for coastal areas by Saturday, warning that those who stay will be “on your own.”
At a press conference Friday morning, Deal and state officials outlined the preparations for the now storm expected to hit in three days. Deal has declared a state of emergency for 94 counties, essentially every county in south and middle Georgia, and President Trump approved it Friday afternoon. It allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide assistance and equipment to help respond to the storm. That includes “debris removal and emergency protective measures, including direct federal assistance (that) will be provided at 75 percent federal funding,” according to Trump’s order.
“This is a time of crisis for our state,” Deal said.
The governor warned Georgians not to be complacent about the storm because Hurricane Matthew last year was less severe than expected because that storm struck the coastal areas at low tide and the state might not be so fortunate this time. Homer Bryson, director of the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency, said it is monitoring the path of the storm on an hourly basis and adjusting plans as needed.
Those who live east of Interstate 95 along the coast of Georgia, including all of Chatham County, were under a mandatory evacuation order as of 8 a.m. Saturday, and the state at that time will “contraflow” all lanes of Interstate 16 to go west from Savannah to Dublin. Those leaving should not only have a plan for evacuation but a backup plan and should have plenty of gas and time to travel, said Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry.
Many of those evacuees have headed to Augusta. The city opened a single shelter Friday for evacuees fleeing Hurricane Irma. The status other city shelter sites was not revealed.
At 2 p.m. a shelter for evacuees opened at Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church, 1330 Monte Sano Ave. The shelter had not reached its capacity of 179 Friday afternoon but when it reaches 70 percent full, officials will begin preparations to open a second shelter at Warren Road Community Center, 300 Warren Road, said Susan Everitt, executive director for American Red Cross of Augusta.
Augusta’s 311 information hotline will remain open through the weekend to refer evacuees to resources, an operator said. To reach the service from outside Augusta, call (706) 821-2300. The bulk of Augusta’s shelter preparation is eight sites opening under an agreement between Richmond County Emergency Management Agency, Richmond County Board of Education and Chatham County, where residents are under a mandatory evacuation order.
Augusta Fire Chief and EMA Director Chris James said at a Friday news conference that the school system shelters will be ready at 8 a.m. today to receive evacuees from Chatham County. The current agreement calls for Augusta to house 3,000 Chatham evacuees, he said.
Mayor Hardie Davis said at a Friday news conference evacuees will be well cared for .
“These are good Georgians who are coming here at a time when they are experiencing a tragic moment,” he said. “We want to make sure that this is a place of safe refuge for them as they come to our community and we will house them, we will shelter them, we will feed and clothe them. We will love them just like they were our brothers and sisters.”
The school system, which will be closed Monday through Wednesday, has referred a request for the school sites to EMA.
Last October, when Hurricane Matthew evacuees from Chatham arrived by the dozens in school buses, they took shelter at several Richmond County high and middle school gymnasiums.
Keeping shelter locations private until they open is a policy that helps ensure the “effective use of resources,” Everitt said.
Irma is expected to bring tropical storm-force winds, roughly 40 mph and heavy rain to Augusta beginning around 8 p.m. Sunday, according to the latest forecast. Flash flooding is common in the city during most heavy rainfall.
In Columbia County, two shelter sites opened, at Patriot’s Park and Liberty Park Community Center, both in Grovetown.
To prepare for the hurricane, Grovetown and county personnel have been doing emergency equipment placement and communications checks, as well as preparing to house an anticipated influx of Irma evacuees. The Columbia County schools system is closing schools Monday. The district made the announcement via its Facebook page, stating a possibility of delays or closures for Tuesday as well.
During a preparation meeting with county staff and other emergency personnel early Friday, Emergency Management Agency Director Andy Leanza shared details about the activation of the county’s Emergency Operations Center, which will go into effect today at 7 a.m. Once activated, Leanza said staff at the EOC will begin 12 hour shifts within the communications center.
Leanza urged citizens to sign up for the Code Red countywide alert messaging system that is available on the county’s website.
“CodeRED is an emergency notification service by which public safety can notify residents and businesses by telephone or cellular phone about emergency situations,” according to the county’s website. “The system is capable of sending messages only to specific neighborhoods or the entire community.”
The Code Red App is also available for smartphone users.
Leanza also encouraged citizens to utilize the 3-1-1, for emergencies not considered lige threatening.
“In an active emergency call 911. But if anybody has any kind of request for information or sees something going on that’s not life threatenting, go ahead and call 311,” Leanza said, adding that the Columbia County EMA Facebook page will be updated regularly with information.
Capt. Steve Morris with Columbia County Sheriff’s Office said deputies will be on hand to assist should anyone need help finding shelter.
“If called we would contact EMA and find out what shelters are available,” he said.
Morris estimates more than 50 deputies, which includes investigators, would be working shifts by Monday. He said remaining personnel will be on standby.
“We would do basically the same business that we do each and every day in that the difference is with the storm we expect high winds, down trees and power lines and during this process we will do our best to clear the roadways,” he said.
In a statement Friday afternoon, Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt said his department will work with other local, state and federal agencies to make sure resident are protected should the storm have an impact.
He advised residents to monitor local media and weather stations throughout the weekend for updates from officials.
The military is also getting involved in local relief efforts. Cpt. Chad Cooper with the 35th Theater Tactical Signal Brigade said 30 soldiers were deployed to Fort Gordon on Friday morning to support operations.
About 5,000 Georgia National Guard troops are also on alert to assist with the storm and will be called up as needed. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is opening all state parks and will admit people free of charge and can accommodate up to 10,000 people. No one will be turned away, said Commissioner Mark Williams.