ATLANTA -- A change in course has sent Hurricane Floyd barreling toward coastal Georgia, where it is expected to whip up 125-mph winds in downtown Savannah late tonight and create a 15-to-20-foot storm surge along the coast.
The massive storm, about the size of Texas, is projected to drag its eye over Tybee Island, about 20 miles east of Savannah at about 11 p.m., then come ashore at Beaufort, S.C., at about 1 a.m. Thursday, forecasters said late Tuesday morning.
The change in course, from an earlier path that would have put the hurricane further to the east, increases the likelihood of major damage along the Georgia coast, said Gary McConnell, director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA).
Even before the storm changed direction, a mandatory evacuation order was put into effect in Chatham and Glynn counties, where the state's most populous barrier islands are located, while voluntary evacuations were underway elsewhere along the coast. Gov. Roy Barnes declared a state of emergency in the six coastal counties, activating 800 Georgia National Guardsmen to help with evacuations.
"We need the citizens in the coastal counties of Georgia to realize this is a very, very dangerous storm," McConnell said. "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 or loss of life."
To help speed the evacuation of an estimated 500,000 Georgians, the largest evacuation in the state's history, the Georgia Department of Transportation converted Interstate 16 into a westbound-only highway between Savannah and U.S. 1 near Swainsboro early Tuesday afternoon. Still, traffic was moving slowly along I-16, said Deputy DOT Commissioner Steve Parks.
Parks said traffic along I-75 was at twice the normal flow, while I-95 was approaching capacity.
McConnell urged coastal residents to leave their homes as soon as possible. But he said law enforcement officials would not force people out.
"Nobody will be put in jail if they refuse to leave," he said. "But if you value your life and the lives of your family and loved ones, get out of the way of this hurricane before it hits the Georgia coast."
The American Red Cross was in the process of opening 25 emergency shelters, and the Salvation Army had three mobile kitchens up and running.
McConnell said GEMA was opening shelters as far north as Perry along I-75 to accommodate Florida residents who couldn't get into one of the rapidly filling shelters there.
McConnell said gale-force winds of about 40 mph should begin to be felt in extreme southeastern Georgia by around 7 a.m., with hurricane-force winds of 75 mph expected to hit Camden County by late afternoon.
In addition to high winds, McConnell said forecasters are predicting up to 12-to-15 inches of rain could fall along the north side of the storm as it travels up the coast.
Historically, however, the most damage during hurricanes comes from storm surges, a wall of seawater flooding inland.
"A 15-to-20-foot storm surge would inundate a lot of property in Chatham County," McConnell said. "It would flood a large portion of the six (coastal) Georgia counties."