The focus on Hurricane Floyd shifted north Wednesday as Georgia dodged the full force of the storm's pounding.
Evacuations in the Carolinas mirrored the earlier exodus as thousands fled inland, snarling highway traffic as the hurricane thrashed its way along the coast.
President Clinton extended a federal disaster declaration to include South Carolina and North Carolina, and residents braced for the storm to make landfall along the border between the two states early today.
Floyd weakened slightly Wednesday to a Category 3 storm, its winds down from a peak of nearly 155 mph when it battered the Bahamas. The storm's hurricane-force winds extended 140 miles from its center.
Forecasters predicted the storm would come ashore between Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Wilmington, N.C., between 5 and 6 a.m., then rip northward along Interstate 95.
Three years ago, Hurricane Fran hit Wilmington and tore deeper into the state along Interstate 40, killing 49 people and causing $7 billion in damage.
Gary McConnell, director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said Wednesday that coastal evacuation orders remained in effect and officials wouldn't consider rescinding them until the eye of the hurricane passed the Georgia and South Carolina coastlines. It was supposed to pass Savannah at about 8 p.m. Wednesday and South Carolina this morning.
GEMA officials will not reopen Interstate 16 or other roads until then.
In Myrtle Beach, officials instituted a 3 p.m. curfew, and National Guardsmen blocked off the bridge from the mainland to prevent people from reaching the beach, where white-capped surf pounded the sand under a filmy haze. Heavy rain and driving winds already were bringing down tree branches a day before Floyd was expected to reach the city.
Public works crews planned to turn off the power in Myrtle Beach at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Horry County sheriff's deputies said. By Wednesday morning, a steady stream of cars marked the latest departure, goaded by grim warnings from radio disc jockeys.
Television reports illustrated how the storm wall -- boasting 35-foot waves -- could devour the city.
"Almost everyone we know left town," said resident Ellen Walker, who sent her two children inland. "We're definitely taking it seriously."
More than 2.6 million people in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina already had been told to evacuate coastal areas, and North Carolina officials ordered the Barrier Islands evacuated Wednesday, making the exodus the largest ever in U.S. history. The Barrier Islands on the outskirts of North Carolina were pounded by Hurricane Dennis more than two weeks ago.
Additional refugees caused traffic jams along I-40 and other highways leading out of Wilmington. It was a repeat of the problems faced by evacuees in Georgia and South Carolina on Tuesday, sitting in gridlock on Interstate 16 and state highways as they fled Savannah and other coastal cities.
Charleston, S.C., officials were still fuming Wednesday over the flawed evacuation that left some residents on Interstate 26 for hours. Just outside of the city, a chemical leak at Albright & Wilson's Charleston plant sent a toxic phosphorous cloud floating over I-26 and the long line of vehicles.
Occupants were told to keep their windows tightly shut and air conditioners running to avoid fumes, causing hundreds of cars to run hot and stall. Fire also broke out at the plant, which was visible from the road.
The leak was fixed Wednesday morning, a company spokesman said.
North Charleston fire engineer Grant Mishoe called the incident "the Catch-22 from hell," with people ordered to evacuate, then trapped in the vicinity of the toxic fumes.
Mayor Joseph Riley Jr. pledged to demand a better transportation plan to move residents out of harm's way.
"If we're fleeing the enemy -- in this case a killer hurricane -- reasonable inconvenience is the price we have to pay for safety," he said. "The inconvenience that many of our citizens have suffered -- stranded for hours in their cars with children and pets with nowhere to go -- is totally unreasonable and unacceptable.
"Our biggest concern is that the next time, people will just refuse to leave. The citizens who went through that need to know it's not going to happen again."
The trip from Charleston was complicated by refugees from Florida and Georgia who were also fleeing the hurricane. Westbound lanes of Interstate 20 in Augusta remained packed Wednesday with South Carolina refugees heading deeper inland in search of hotel rooms or shelters. All rooms in Augusta were filled, and the city had to open the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center to evacuees Wednesday morning after other shelters filled up.
Even though Hurricane Floyd is expected to be much weakened by the time it reaches Washington today, the capital is taking no chances.
"I wish all my colleagues safe travel home," House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said Wednesday, as he and the other leaders canceled legislative business for the week so representatives could catch flights home in case local airports close.
President Clinton nixed plans for a day of golfing in Hawaii -- where his plane was stopping to refuel after a five-day official trip to New Zealand -- so he could hurry home to face Floyd.
In Charleston, those who remained behind were placed under a strict curfew, which may remain in place several days after the storm. Anyone outside between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. will be arrested, Police Chief Reuben Greenberg said. Neighboring Berkeley County also has a similar curfew.
Lines stretched long at the Food Mart on South Carolina Highway 17, one of few convenience stores still open near Charleston. Gas had long since run out, but Ernie Hudson showed up for a beer.
`I'm just hanging out, watching the coverage on TV and drinking beer with some friends," he said.
In McClellanville, sculptor Lee Arthur remained behind to batten down the hatches at his shop on Pinckney Street, concerned about looting and flood damage. A watermark from the flooding caused by Hurricane Hugo a decade ago is still visible in a back room of the shop. Snoopy, Mr. Arthur's dog, guarded the front door as rain poured in Wednesday.
"He has arthritis in his left leg, and he knows something big is coming," the artist said.
Coastal residents stand a better chance of returning to intact homes than previously expected. Floyd sheared along the edge of Georgia, bringing tropical-storm force winds and downing tree limbs and power lines, but dancing away from the coastline without delivering a full punch.
Original forecasts had predicted the eye of the 600-mile-wide hurricane would pass directly over Tybee Island, delivering 125 mph winds to Savannah, before slamming into Beaufort, S.C. Now, forecasters don't expect winds much heavier than 68 mph in Savannah.
"It's a good thing everybody got out of here, but I'm worried about the next time -- that people won't leave again, because it passed over this time," said William Brennan, a Tybee Island resident who stayed to ride out the storm with friends in downtown Savannah. "If I had kids around here, I would have left, but my friends have decided to stick it out."
Mr. Brennan and his friends weren't alone. Despite empty streets where the stillness was broken mainly by police patrol cars every few blocks, as many as 30 percent of Chatham County's 250,000 people stayed to weather Floyd, officials estimated Wednesday. Many gathered in large groups in the city's older, historic homes, convinced that the sturdy brick structures would withstand whatever the storm threw at them.
"I'm a lot safer in Savannah with a Category 5 hurricane than with my wife in Atlanta with my credit card," said Herman Coolid, a resident of the downtown Victorian District who stopped by Wednesday at Pete's Sandwich Shop on Habersham Avenue, the only game in town for a meal.
The restaurant served up sandwiches until it ran out of food, doling out egg-salad sandwiches to the last customers.
"Why not stay open?" owner Mannie Pontikaki said. "You think I believe what those people say on TV?"
Others took televised warnings to heart, and many last-minute stragglers said they were responding to Gov. Roy Barnes appeal to leave the city or to President Clinton's disaster declaration.
Kotesia Baker grew up in Savannah and has never left the city, but she boarded a 10 a.m. bus with her six children to go to a shelter in Macon. It was the last bus provided by the city to take people to shelters in other parts of the state. Ms. Baker and her children, outfitted with backpacks, grabbed clothes but left their other belongings behind.
"When I saw the president on TV, I knew it was serious and we had to leave," Ms. Baker said. "It's not looking like it's going to hit, but I'm getting out of here. This place is a ghost town."
Tom Jones, who rode out Hurricanes Hugo and David, sent his wife inland Tuesday but stayed behind in Savannah with his 19-year-old son to protect their furniture and valuables from looters. He changed his mind after watching televised warnings.
"The man on TV was saying `Leave, leave, leave,"' Mr. Jones said as he boarded the bus Wednesday morning. "There's a lot of people on my street that aren't listening, but I'm going to."
Mark Mathis, Jessica Rinck, Margaret
N. O'Shea and Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 724-0851.
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