ATLANTA — When Samantha Ramirez began stocking up for Hurricane Irma’s approach toward Georgia, she ran into problems finding bottled water.
After hearing about Atlanta’s first-ever tropical storm warning Sunday, Ramirez rushed to grocery stores only to find that three locations didn’t have any water. Her struggle to find water made her realize the threat from Irma.
“I didn’t think it was going to be this bad,” said Ramirez, 32, who works in downtown Atlanta but lives in Hiram, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the north. “I noticed that my neighbors just went to the gas station and they brought back a bunch of containers. They are stocking up with gasoline. It seems like people are starting to get more frightened.”
Ramirez plans to work from home Monday, staying with her 10-year-old son whose school, like many others, in metro Atlanta from K-12 will be closed. Colleges including the University of Georgia and Georgia State have cancelled classes.
Georgia Tech officials said the campus will remain open with limited operations, and will monitor the storm’s progress.
Hurricane Irma prompted Georgia’s governor to declare an emergency Sunday for the entire state, where coastal Savannah was evacuated for the second time in less than a year.
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The National Weather Service in Peachtree City, Georgia, confirmed that Atlanta — more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) inland from either the Atlantic or Gulf coasts — was under a tropical storm warning for the first time. Thousands of evacuees from Florida had swarmed into Atlanta for shelter as they fled Irma in recent days.
Much of eastern Alabama and coastal South Carolina also were under tropical storm warnings as Irma pummeled Florida, weakening on its march northward. The National Hurricane Center predicted the storm would cross Monday into southwest Georgia, where a hurricane warning was in effect for a large rural area including the cities of Albany and Valdosta.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said Sunday that strong winds tore tile and debris off the facade of a 32-story building on a downtown Atlanta street, forcing some road closures.
Reed said he expects winds to grow stronger over the night, warning power lines and trees could fall. He urged residents to store trashcans and outside furniture and equipment in their homes.
“Don’t be fooled that this storm cannot hurt you. Don’t go out and play in it,” he said. “We urge everyone to stay indoors and stay safe.”
Forecasters said metro Atlanta could expect peak winds of 30-40 mph (50 to 65 kph) and gusts up to 55 mph (90 kph) on Monday as a result of Irma’s remnants, with a likelihood of falling limbs and trees blocking roadways and snapping power lines.
Despite the storm, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport will remain open, spokesman Andrew Gobeil said. He added that the airport is basing their monitoring on aircraft type, wind speed and wind craft direction — which is the most important. He says the final decision will be made by the pilot.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s oldest city, Savannah, sat nearly empty Sunday. Nearly 540,000 people in Savannah and the rest of coastal Georgia were under evacuation orders for the second time since last October, when Hurricane Matthew raked the coast en route to South Carolina.
Forecasters said Irma could push 4-6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 meters) of storm surge into coastal areas as far north as Charleston, South Carolina. In Georgia, similar surge threatened to submerge the only road linking Tybee Island, Georgia, to Savannah on the mainland for hours, said Dennis Jones, emergency management director for Chatham County.
Tropical storm winds were expected in Savannah as well, prompting authorities Sunday afternoon to close the towering Talmadge Memorial Bridge that spans the Savannah River between Georgia and South Carolina.
Jones told reporters Sunday he believes more people evacuated Savannah and nearby communities for Irma than left ahead of Matthew last year.
Further inland, a hurricane warning was in place for Valdosta and surrounding Lowndes County, where Interstate 75 crosses the Georgia-Florida line. Forecasters predicted winds up to 60 mph (95 kph) on Monday morning with gusts possibly reaching hurricane force of 75 mph (120 kph).
Lowndes County officials called for voluntary evacuations of their 112,000 residents, according to a news release Sunday. Mobile home residents and Florida evacuees camping in RVs were urged to head to one of seven storm shelters in the area.
Reed says the Red Cross and recreations will be open for those seeking shelter from the storm. The Salvation Army will assist with any homeless people who are also seeking shelter.
More than 20 Alabama counties were under a tropical storm warning Sunday, with the weather service also warning of possible flash flooding. Meanwhile, shelters were being opened in Tennessee, where forecasts called for Irma to arrive east of Memphis as a tropical depression by late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
Bynum reported from Savannah. Associated Press reporters Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama, and John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia, contributed to this story.