Coastal Georgia residents jammed roads heading inland today as they fled Hurricane Floyd, which continued to churn in the Atlantic and threatened to hit Georgia with 125-mph winds.
Obeying a mandatory evacuation order, residents of Savannah and surrounding Chatham County swarmed onto Interstate 16, the major inland route. The state Department of Transportation closed the highway's eastbound lanes for almost 90 miles -- between Savannah and U.S. 1 -- to allow westbound traffic to take over both sides of the interstate.
The evacuation order took effect at 8 a.m. today for coastal areas of Chatham County and at noon for the entire county, meaning all of Savannah was told to go.
"We have no other option but to take this prudent action," said Phillip Webber, emergency management director for the county. "We cannot afford to play around with a storm of this size or magnitude."
Other coastal counties had voluntary evacuation orders in place, and the director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency urged residents to comply.
"Our greatest need right now is for the citizens in the coastal counties of Georgia to realize this is a very, very dangerous storm," Director Gary McConnell said at a midday news conference today. "...We will have a lot of damage in the coastal areas of Georgia. The more people we get out and the faster we get them out, the less possibility we have of serious injury and loss of life."
McConnell projected that hurricane-force winds will begin in Georgia by Wednesday evening, and Savannah will be hit with 125-mph winds by 11 p.m. Wednesday. The eye of the hurricane should pass over Tybee Island, about 20 miles east of Savannah, he said.
Schools in the coastal counties canceled classes today and Wednesday, and the state ports in Savannah and Brunswick were shut down.
Meanwhile, state and federal resources were being sent to staging areas in Dublin, Statesboro and Jesup in case they are needed. Two shelters were set up at schools in Dublin and Douglasville.
Gov. Roy Barnes declared a state of emergency for the state's coastal counties -- Bryan, Camden, Chatham, Glynn, Liberty and McIntosh -- and asked President Clinton for a federal emergency declaration to allow direct federal assistance for at least the first 72 hours of the storm and its aftermath.
In a letter to Clinton, Barnes said Hurricane Floyd could impact as many as 400,000 residents of the state's coastal counties and another 150,000 in adjacent locations. Fully 40 of the state's 159 counties could be impacted, he said.
On Monday, Barnes activated the Georgia National Guard to aid in the evacuation. The order took effect this morning and sends 800 Guardsmen to Statesboro, Dublin, Jesup, and Waycross, where they will be deployed to the coast.
"The expectations of Hurricane Floyd are considered extremely serious," Barnes said in a release. "My main concern right now is the safety of the citizens of the coastal counties of Georgia."
In addition to high winds, forecasters warned that the storm could bring heavy rains to low-lying areas already susceptible to flooding.
"This is probably the most serious threat we've had to the Georgia coast this century," McConnell said.
The National Weather Service issued a hurricane warning from Brunswick to Miami, a stretch that includes about 35 miles of the Georgia coast. All the rest of the coast was under a watch.
Floyd rammed into the Bahamas early today, although its maximum sustained winds dropped slightly from 155 mph. It was moving west-northwest near 14 mph, and a gradual turn toward the northwest was expected later today.
Residents in the southeast corner of the state started boarding up their homes and filling their gas tanks early Monday.
In the Camden County city of St. Marys, a steady stream of customers started pouring into the Wright & Evans lumber and hardware store at 8 a.m. Monday to buy plywood and duct tape.
"We've been selling out of plywood and stuff all day," said Jean Chestnut, a cashier at the store. "Everybody that we're talking to is taking it serious. ... It just really seems like it's headed our way."
Tom Olsen, a St. Marys antiques dealer, was preparing to board up windows at his home and business. After that, he said, he and his wife would decide whether to evacuate or ride out the storm.
"It's the intensity of it -- 150 mph winds. That's the scary part," Olsen said. "We're not scared. We've just got to take preparations."
Renee Richards, a cashier at Mom & Pop's convenience store in St. Marys, said customers were stocking up on bottled water and filling their gas tanks so they would be ready to evacuate.
"Some of them seem worried," Ms. Richards said. "They're going to get out of town. They don't want to be here if it hits. Other people are saying, `I'm glad I've got insurance."'
Officials at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base were reviewing plans under which submarines docked at the base could be moved out to sea if damaging winds threatened.
"Extra caution is the watchword," said Cmdr. L.T. Evans, the base spokesman. "We would rather overreact at this stage rather than say, `Oh, geez, it's nothing to worry about.' We're sitting on assets that are worth a lot of money and are essential for national defense."