Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said Irma was a “different kind of natural disaster” for the state but despite his warning that evacuees should probably stay put, most of them housed in Augusta left to return home Tuesday.
“We have not had (a disaster) like this in the state of Georgia for a very long time,” Deal said Tuesday. “This is one where the entire state of Georgia has been affected by the hurricane/tropical storm. As a result of this, recovery is going to be a little more slow.”
Deal submitted pre-storm requests for disaster assistance from the federal government for all 159 counties, which was granted, and Tuesday morning submitted requests for more assistance for all of those counties as well, he said.
The aftermath of the storm was apparent in the number of people still without power. From more than 1.2 million without power on Tuesday morning, that number had dwindled down to less than less than 441,000 statewide by 9 p.m., including 3,920 in Richmond County and 3,424 in Columbia County. Aiken County still had 713 without power and Edgefield County had 193.
While Deal lifted his Executive Order for a mandatory evacuation of areas east of Interstate 95, he said evacuees should not leave them until they hear from local officials in south Georgia or Florida that it is safe to return. Many in the metro Atlanta area did not heed that advice and Interstate 75 South was seeing triple its normal volume as evacuees apparently are trying to head home, said Russell McMurry, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation.
They may be unaware that many service stations in south Georgia remain closed or without fuel because they lost power or their fuel tanks were flooded, said Homer Bryson, director of the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency.
“Access to fuel will not be guaranteed if they choose to travel south,” he said.
Deal urged those evacuees from Florida to have patience and enjoy their stay in the state a while longer.
“We’re pleased our state could be a good neighbor,” he said. “Be courteous to each other. Be courteous to your Georgia hosts and they will be courteous to you.”
Of the more than 50 nursing home evacuees that were being cared for in University Extended Care or University Hospital facilities in Augusta, all were staying put Tuesday, said spokeswoman Rebecca Sylvester.
But the 2,000 evacuees from Chatham County who were staying in Richmond County Board of Education school shelters were loaded up on buses beginning at 8 a.m. and by 1 p.m. the last bus was on its way, said Jody Smitherman, senior staff attorney for the city who served as a public information officer during the storm. Still, 158 with ongoing medical needs remained behind but were expected to head home Wednesday morning, she said. Shelters at the Warren Road and Henry Brigham community centers were closed Tuesday afternoon as well, according to a news release from the city.
Of those staying at the four shelters the American Red Cross of Augusta opened for 500 self-evacuees, “almost all of them are already gone,” said Executive Director Susan Everitt. The Red Cross was working with the rest, some of whom just need gas cards to get home, she said.
“Obviously if you are displaced, you want to go home so we are trying to do what we can to help people go home,” Everitt said. “But we will have a shelter open indefinitely. We just have to take it day by day.’
Columbia County will close the second of its two shelters to house Irma evacuees Wednesday. Officials released a statement Tuesday that the Patriots Park shelter would stop accepting evacuees at 4 p.m. and would resume normal operations Thursday.
The Georgia Department of Public Health placed public health nurses in all 41 of the Red Cross shelters across the state and worked with Medical Association of Georgia Medical Reserve Corps to get physicians in there, as well as at least one paramedic, said Commissioner J. Patrick O’Neal. That support will continue as long as the shelters remain open, he said. O’Neal was also concerned that people may be heading home prematurely.
“I feel like we’ve done very well so far but the recovery phase will tell the tale,” O’Neal said. “There’s a lot we don’t know yet. There are parts of the state where there has been a lot of damage and we’ve not been able to get in there and assess the situation. We may find things over the next few days that we had not even thought about today.”
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.