Originally created 09/14/99

Evacuees head for Augusta



Local motels were booked, and area emergency officials kept their eye on the weather Monday as Hurricane Floyd churned toward the Southeast, promising to deliver a stronger punch to coastal Georgia and South Carolina than his predecessor, Hurricane Dennis.

Evacuees from South Carolina's Beaufort, Hilton Head Island and Charleston flooded the telephone lines of motels in Aiken and Augusta on Monday, looking for safe refuge and thinking this Category 4 hurricane is for real.

"The phones have been ringing off the hook since around 9 this morning. We went from having like 100-something rooms sold for tonight to being booked for tonight, tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday," said Edie Graham, guest service manager at the Holiday Inn on Gordon Highway in Augusta.

"It's not like it was with Dennis. He just played around with us. This is for sure," Ms. Graham said. "These people are guaranteeing their reservations, asking if they can come in a day early. They're really scared."

Aiken County is the primary evacuation site for coastal Beaufort County. Emergency management officials have scheduled an 8 a.m. meeting today to review disaster and shelter plans while bracing for up to 150,000 people fleeing Floyd.

The concern is twofold: preparing for hurricane damage locally while planning to accept evacuees, Aiken County Administrator Bill Shepherd said.

"You only have to look at Hugo. A storm could be as damaging in Aiken as it could be on the coast," he said.

Closing schools this week remained a possibility, but it depends on Floyd's path and whether evacuations in Beaufort County are mandatory or voluntary, Mr. Shepherd said.

"Our immediate concern is to make sure we're ready to receive anyone from the coast," he said.

Evacuees were expected to start arriving in Augusta late Monday night and today.

About 45 residents of Broad Creek Assisted Living Center on Hilton Head Island were being taken to Columbia-Augusta Medical Center on Monday night to beat the hurricane, said Michael Kerner, chief executive officer of Columbia-Augusta. The hospital has an arrangement to take in residents of the home who need care should they be evacuated, Mr. Kerner said.

"We'll just give them whatever care they need," he said. Hospital officials were trying to confirm the residents were on their way Monday night but were having a hard time getting through by phone, Mr. Kerner said.

Augusta's University Hospital is expecting 73 residents of Life Care Assisted Living Center on Hilton Head Island. The plan was to evacuate them at 7:30 a.m. today, although that could change depending on Floyd's course, said University spokeswoman Kim Downes. Bringing the residents to University is part of a standard evacuation plan, she said.

"They use us for the beds," Mrs. Downes said. "They bring their own staff and medication."

Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics is designated to receive babies from Savannah's neonatal hospital unit if there is an evacuation, but there was no word Monday night on whether the unit would be evacuated, said MCG spokeswoman Toni Baker.

Augusta has a contingency plan to accommodate hurricane conditions. But even if Floyd doesn't reach Augusta, the city would still be affected.

Boats likely would seek refuge by moving up the Savannah River to Augusta for safety and evacuees likely would fill available housing.

At area motels, this is round two of their hurricane drills. When Dennis snubbed its nose at South Carolina and headed north, cancellations drained the wallets of local hotels.

"This hurricane has a wider area," front desk clerk Sonya Edwards said at the 67-room Hampton Inn in Aiken. "We just know if it hits, the guests will be here. If not, we'll have an onslaught of cancellations."

Asked if they were feeling the effects of Hurricane Floyd, the desk clerk on duty at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in Augusta said: "We're surely affected, but I can't help you with a story right now. That's how affected we are. We're swamped."

Reach Tom Corwin, Greg Rickabaugh and Suzanne R. Stone at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.