Savannah and six coastal counties will be under an emergency evacuation order starting at 8 a.m. on Saturday, according to an official announcement from city and county leaders made at a 2 p.m. Thursday press conference.
Coastal Georgia residents should begin gathering their emergency supplies, important documents and finalizing plans to leave their homes as Hurricane Irma, a powerful Category 5 hurricane, charges toward the Atlantic Coast, said Dennis Jones, manager of Chatham Emergency Management Agency.
The mandatory evacuation announcement came roughly an hour after SCAD completed its relocation of roughly 600 students from Savannah to its Atlanta campus. SCAD will close at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday for the duration of the storm.
As of 11 a.m. Thursday morning, Irma was tracked at 1,098 miles southeast of Chatham County. According to the National Weather Service website, Irma is currently moving west by northwest at 16 MPH. Jones said that Governor Deal’s decision coincides with the city’s plan to issue its own evacuation order beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday.
“This will be a mandatory for all zones,” Jones said. “We do have three zones in Chatham County, A, B and C. This mandatory evacuation order will be issued for all three zones.”
Also at the same scheduled time, the Chatham EMA stated that I-16 will be put in contraflow with all four lanes of traffic going west only. Jones said that the city has several plans in place with the issue of a state of emergency, and that those plans become guiding principles for the local emergency response community.
“In Chatham County, we are a unified county,” Jones said. “You see the mayor and city manager standing behind me. This is a unified effort to make sure we are operating in the most efficient and effective manner possible, because it’s all about public safety and it’s all about you getting back to your property as quickly as possible. We’ll continue to meet in the unified effort, and we’ll communicate the decision to our operational folks, and other people that are coming in to support the response effort.”
According to the National Weather Service website, a critical point in tracking Irma’s trajectory is when the storm turns north this weekend. Jones continually emphasized the importance of preparedness among Chatham County residents and urged them to finalize evacuation and communication plans.
“We still have several days ahead of us,” Jones said. “That gives us plenty of time to prepare. We’ve been talking about this for several days. Now is the time you need to start wrapping up your preparedness efforts. We are pretty assured that we’re going to get something from this storm. It all depends on how that storms comes up the coast of Florida, but we’re pretty confident we’re going to get something from this storm which is why we’re reacting the way we are to get people out of harm’s way.”
Jones said he and local officials have been meeting hourly in order to make and announce decisions in unison.
“All of our decision making is in lock step,” Jones said. “The challenge during Matthew was we weren’t in sync. We are definitely in sync now.”
SCAD officials are encouraging students to routinely check their emails, cellphones, Twitter and scad.edu for updates on the storm situation and campus operations.