Thousands of coastal Georgia residents fled inland Tuesday to escape the promised fury of Hurricane Floyd, jamming highways and filling hotels across Georgia and South Carolina. They abandoned homes and belongings under an incongruously blue sky in preparation for a monster of a storm that dwarfs any in recent memory.
President Bill Clinton had already declared parts of Georgia and Florida disaster areas Tuesday, even before the force of Floyd -- more than twice the size of the country's most costly hurricane, Andrew in 1992 -- reached Georgia's coast.
A shift in the path of the 600-mile-wide hurricane brought it barreling straight for Georgia, and the eye of the Category 4 storm is expected to pass directly over Tybee Island at about 11 p.m. today, promising devastating consequences.
"I'm not really worried about damage," said D.L. Chambers of Savannah, while boarding a shelter transport provided by the city. "I'll leave that to the good man up-stairs. My family is my main focus."
Savannah could face winds up to 125 miles per hour before the hurricane makes its anticipated landfall near Beaufort, S.C., at about 1 a.m. Thursday, forecasters said. Tropical-storm force winds could reach as far west as Interstate 75, the National Weather Service reported.
Westbound roadways were jammed Tuesday as those fleeing the threat moved inland, and the Georgia State Patrol redirected traffic on a 90-mile stretch of eastbound Interstate 16, allowing westbound motorists from Savannah to use lanes on both sides of the highway. Evacuees from Charleston and Savannah reported travel times up to 10 hours to reach Augusta, normally a 2- to 3-hour trip. Traffic slowed to a crawl or ground to a halt as far north as Charlotte, N.C.
In South Carolina, traffic edged along Interstate 26 in a solid line as thousands tried to obey evacuation orders.
Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley Jr. asked the state Department of Transportation to make I-26 a one-way highway, but the department balked until nightfall. Officials feared a bottle-neck where the highway intersects with Interstate 95, which was clogged with traffic fleeing Florida and Georgia, South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges said.
"Being in stuck in traffic is better than being stuck in a coffin," Mr. Riley said.
More than 2 million people were ordered to evacuate along the southeastern coast of the country. Gov. Roy Barnes declared a state of emergency in 55 counties expected to suffer severe weather, activating 900 National Guardsmen to help with evacuations. In South Carolina, Gov. Hodges mobilized 2,200 state troopers and national Guardsmen to enforce the evacuation.
Hotels in the Augusta area hung out their "No Vacancy" signs early Tuesday, and refugees jammed the Georgia welcome center on Interstate 20, searching for shelter. Patients from coastal hospitals also poured into the city, and area relief agencies mobilized to provide support for evacuees.
Susie Hall of Charleston, an employee of Medical University of South Carolina, knew it was time to leave her hometown when the 550-bed facility started clearing out some patients Monday.
"They said they couldn't get patients out fast enough," she said, pausing along South Carolina Highway 27 to regroup a caravan of three cars on the way to Greer, S.C.
Frazzled refugees, arriving at hotels and shelters after long trips inland, also were flooding Augusta-area kennels with pets. Richard Lord of Paradise Kennels said 62 pets were checked in before 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, and he expected to work late into the night accepting more animals from wary coastal residents.
"If people are in a pinch, you don't want to leave them," he said.
The coastal exodus -- one of the greatest ever in Georgia -- left oceanfront cities including Savannah empty by Monday afternoon. Normally lively River Street was almost empty, although a live broadcast by CBS anchorman Dan Rather brought a crowd of stragglers out in greeting, including Ricky Thomas, who asked Mr. Rather to autograph a $100 bill.
`I've been watching him ever since Walter Cronkite went off the air," Mr. Thomas said. "It doesn't happen all the time that you get to meet a star."
Most coastal residents were more concerned with boarding up their homes, gassing up their cars and joining the gridlock on the roads.
Tuesday's preparations in Brunswick began at the Home Depot store, which opened its doors at 6 a.m. to lines of people searching for plywood sheets to cover windows and doors. A steady stream of cars -- usually 12 to 15 vehicles long -- lined up at trucks carrying the material.
"I've never seen it like this before," store manager Melanie Page said. "People are actually worried, and it's like they haven't really prepared for it. It's eerie."
Customer Scott Diamond, who lived in Miami in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew chewed it's way across Florida, leaving $20 billion in damages behind, was daunted by descriptions of Hurricane Floyd's size.
"If this is bigger than Andrew, then it's going to be real bad," he said. "I can't even imagine the devastation."
Like many coastal residents, Mr. Diamond had already made plans to leave -- even before the evacuation orders -- but finding a place to stay was proving difficult.
"Everywhere I've called, from Valdosta to Columbus, is booked," he said.
On Jekyll Island, the few remaining residents were boarding up windows or finishing their packing Tuesday morning, shortly before officials announced mandatory evacuations off Jekyll, Sea and St. Simon's islands, ordering everyone to the mainland by 3:30 p.m.
"If it hits us head on, there's nothing we can do," said Tim Wellford, busy boarding up his seaside restaurant, The Sand Castel Cafe & Grill, before being forced to abandon his two island homes. "It's just one of those deals of living on the beach, but there's no place like this on earth. It's worth it."
In Savannah, some refugees formed a makeshift shelter outside the Civic Center as they waited for city buses to take them to shelters in Dublin, Macon and Douglas, Ga. Officials managed to clear out the Civic Center by about 7 p.m., although many people waiting for buses complained the process was too disorganized.
Farther north, in Charleston, volunteers knocked on doors urging people to leave, and the city's Housing Authority opened a shelter for the elderly and medically infirm. The City Council passed an emergency ordinance to deter price gouging for food and other supplies. A curfew goes into effect at 7 p.m. today and will remain from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. as long as electricity is out.
Gov. Hodges, stopping briefly in Charleston during a helicopter tour of the hunkered-down coast, also urged residents to leave.
"To stay would be foolish," he said. "We have never seen in our lifetime a hurricane with the potential impact this one has on South Carolina."
On the historic battery, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, John Stuhr watched plywood go up on the windows of the mansion he and his wife bought three months ago. His family, who took shelter in an insurance building when their home on Sullivan's Island was destroyed during Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
"You can hear it, you can see it, you can smell it, and it's absolutely awful," he said.
On Council Street, Debra Rosen hurried to the car with her father's oxygen tank. Retired attorney Morris Rosen rode out Hugo, but he was only 69 years old and healthier then, she said.
"This one's going to be the worst," she said. "What can you do?"
South Carolina residents as far inland as Columbia, driven by their experience with Hugo a decade ago, were stocking up on supplies, emptying out grocery stores. Packing a car full of groceries in the parking lot of the Bi-Lo at Edenwood Shopping Center, Tammy Padula admitted she'd never prepared for a hurricane but didn't want to take any chances with Floyd.
"I don't know why -- I think it's something about that line about this being triple the size of Andrew," she said. "I'm not panicked, but I'm playing it safe."
Motorists seeking information about traffic can call a special toll-free line for the Department of Transportation at (888) 424-4929.
GEMA will provide updates on the hurricane's progress at the agency's Website, located at www.state.ga.us/GEMA.