National News

Southwest Georgians seek shelter as Irma nears

Posted September 10

— With memories of devastating January storms fresh in his mind, Keith Ross wanted no part of Hurricane Irma.

Ross was one of around 125 people who had already sought refuge Sunday from expected regional hurricane-force winds at the Red Cross shelter set up in the Albany Civic Center. He said he came on to the shelter Saturday night, shortly after it opened.

"I live on Stagecoach Road, and the tornadoes from that last storm were enough to convince me that I needed to find a safe place, especially when they started saying this was going to be worse," Ross, a brick mason, said. "There are a lot of pecan trees around my house, and I didn't want to risk it.

"I was supposed to start a job in Tennessee the first of the week, but I decided not to risk my life. You can always replace material things, but you only get one life."

Albany and Dougherty County officials, as they have the last three days, held a Sunday-morning news conference at the downtown Albany-Dougherty Government Center to update the media on developments with Irma, already declared the most powerful hurricane spawned in the Atlantic Ocean.

"This hurricane has pivoted significantly multiple times, and there is never a certainty with a storm like this," Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said. "But the consensus is that the storm will hit Southwest Georgia, specifically Albany and Dougherty County, and we need to be prepared for hurricane-force winds.

"This storm is going to strike Southwest Georgia as early as this (Sunday) evening and continue through the night. I can't impress on our citizens how important it is for them to be where they're going to be by 5 o'clock today (Sunday). By that time, we should be getting sustained 30 to 35 mph winds. They will build over time, and we are expected to get gusts between 74 and 110 mph."

About 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Gov. Nathan Deal added 65 counties to his emergency declaration, which now covers the entire state.

Donal Harrigan, meteorologist with the National Weather Service Office in Tallahassee that covers Albany and Southwest Georgia, said Irma, packing 130 mph winds Sunday, reached landfall at Cudjoe Key, Fla., around 9 a.m. Sunday and was tracking northward at 9 mph.

"Right now, tropical storm conditions have increased almost 100 percent north Florida and south Georgia, including Albany," he said. "Sometime late tonight (Sunday night) around 2 a.m. or so, sustained tropical storm force winds will be in the Albany area.

"As far as hurricane force winds, there's about a 2 in 10 chance that (sustained) hurricane force winds will reach Albany. There's still uncertainty with the track of this storm. If it makes landfall further south around Naples, those probabilities might be a little lower. If it continues up and makes a landfall near Cedar Key at the Big Bend, then they might increase. There's still wiggle room."

Harrigan said it was likely Albany would have sustained tropical storm force winds with gusts that reach hurricane force.

"The tropical storm force winds are expected to taper off behind the storm. By midnight Monday night, you guys should be clear of the sustained tropical force winds."

The peak, he said, is expected to reach Albany Monday afternoon. Harrigan said that the sustained winds were expected to be in the 40-50 mph range with gusts in the 60-70 mph range. If that holds, the speeds would be less than those that hit Albany in January, but they also will be continuously blowing for a much longer period of time.

"Where the straight line wind damage comes through pretty quick, the prolonged sustained wind at high levels can really weaken and damage structures that maybe weren't damaged with the straight-line winds," he said. "The main threats we see with these winds are going to be trees down all over the place - on houses and cars - and then power outages.

"The power outages could be prolonged. In the Albany area, depending on how widespread it is, it could be up to a week."

As far as precipitation, Harrigan said Albany is located on the line of 4-6 inches and 6-8 inches. "Realistically, it could be anywhere from 4 to 8 inches of rain," he said. "With tropical systems, we say very isolated areas could pick up double that."

Harrigan said residents should get to a shelter or an interior room of a residence. "In the Albany area with the forecast we have now, it's safer to shelter in the interior of your home that to go out somewhere else," he said."The main things we're trying to message is be prepared for a prolonged power outage and take shelter in an interior room of your home.

"You should not be out wandering around, especially after midnight."

Officials with Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital said Sunday afternoon that two full shifts of clinical staff were scheduled to report to the hospital Sunday night.

"They will be sleeping on cots and empty hospital beds to ensure they here and ready to care for patients currently in our hospitals and those who may arrive with emergency needs," hospital officials said, adding that elective and outpatient surgical procedures that had been scheduled for Monday and Tuesday have been canceled.

Phoebe officials said they were monitoring Irma developments closely and would make further decisions on staffing and operations as the need arises.

Deputy Emergency Management Agency Director Jenna Wirtz said local emergency responders will be out in force until sustained winds reach 40 mph.

"When sustained winds reach 40 mph, we will pull our emergency responders off the streets for their safety," Wirtz said. "We want to encourage anyone who has an emergency to still call 911. We will respond when it is safe for us to do so. For any other non-emergency questions, call our EMA center at (229) 483-6226 or (229) 483-6227."

Asked if response by Georgia emergency personnel in the wake of devastating Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area would leave the state vulnerable in emergency response and recovery, Wirtz said she is confident the state will have adequate resources.

"For right now, we have the people we need," she said. "State officials knew there was the potential for serious issues with Irma, so they held back many of the resources that might have responded to the situation in Texas. Certainly state volunteer groups have responded to the Texas storm, but our officials knew with Irma coming that there was the possibility that we would need our resources here."

Cohilas said National Guard troops are in Dougherty County, and local officials are waiting for a response from President Trump on a presidential declaration of emergency. Cohilas declared a state of emergency locally on Thursday.

Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard asked local businesses to consider closing Sunday evening and up to 5 p.m. Monday, when local officials say they expect the worst of Irma's winds to have passed through the area.

"The safety of our citizens is our No. 1 priority in this," the mayor said.

Schools and colleges in the Albany area will be closed Monday, as will most businesses, including the Albany Mall. Albany Technical College officials announced Sunday that ATC will remain closed Tuesday with plans to reopen Wednesday.

Marine Corps Logistics base-Albany issued a notice Sunday that the installation would close at midnight Sunday, only allowing access to those essential to the safety and security of personnel and property. MCLB officials said personnel could anticipate the base having a delayed reopening Tuesday after a damage assessment has been made.

The Flint RiverQuarium, which announced it would be open Monday before the forecast worsened, said Saturday it will be closed.

At the Civic Center, Kerri Foley, a Red Cross volunteer from Boston, said she has worked at shelters in Massachusetts during emergencies in her home state, but directing the shelter at the Civic Center is her first out-of-state deployment with the agency. She works for the Boston YMCA.

Foley said 120 people had signed in at the Red Cross shelter by Sunday morning. By the time she finished a brief conversation with a reporter, several more had entered the center.

"Once folks come in and register, we assign them a cot and give them a couple of blankets," Foley said. "We provide food, and we have showers here, so we give them soap and hygiene products. Since we are a temporary shelter right now, our primary concern is food and shelter. If this becomes a long-term situation, we'll plan for additional resources."

Ross said Red Cross volunteers have worked to make the shelter as comfortable as possible.

"They're doing a real good job," he said. "They're taking care of as many personal needs as they can; they've got hygiene products and formula for babies. The food, which I understand is being provided by some of the local churches, is very good. The big thing, though, is that they're providing a safe place for us to stay."

Asked his plans as wind and rain associated with Irma started to ramp up outside, Ross was philosophical.

"Hey, man, I'm at a place where I feel safe," he said. "I think I'm gonna ride things out right here."

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