Southern U.S. coast nervously watches Hanna

Posted September 2, 2008 3:58 p.m. EDT
Updated November 17, 2017 8:53 a.m. EST

— Nervous residents rushed to buy plywood and generators while emergency officials in Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas weighed possible evacuations Tuesday as Tropical Storm Hanna was expected to shift toward a tough-to-predict landfall along the southern Atlantic coast by the end of the week.

The National Hurricane Center predicted Hanna would most likely come ashore as a hurricane between Friday and Saturday somewhere between the east coast of Florida and the North Carolina coast. Forecasts Tuesday showed the storm making landfall near the Georgia-South Carolina border.

"The projected path takes it to a Category 1 hurricane and then making landfall anywhere from the middle of Florida up to the southern North Carolina coast because it is going to be moving in such a shallow angle to the coast, a slight track [change] could make a huge difference in where this thing makes landfall," WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel said.

Hanna's winds were 65 mph Tuesday evening as it drifted over the Bahamas, but the Hurricane Center said it could intensify Wednesday and Thursday. The storm is expected to turn to the northwest on Wednesday.

"The probability of damaging winds in Raleigh right now is at 5 percent," Fishel said.

If Hanna does cross the central portion of North Carolina, the possibility of tropical storm force winds would start Friday night, Maze said.

Emergency responders in North Carolina are getting ready in case Hanna arrives in the state.

The Civil Air Patrol said Tuesday that units in North Carolina were alerted at about 5 a.m. by state wing commander Lt. Col. David Crawford to be ready to fly disaster relief missions.

Crawford said his wing has more than 1,300 members who could be used by the Air Force and the state for surveillance and ground-support missions.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said state officials are preparing, and he urged residents to make emergency preparations.

"We can't get caught waiting for the storm to make up its mind where it will go," Easley said in a statement.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency as Hanna, downgraded from hurricane status Tuesday but with ample time to regain strength, was forecast to turn to the northwest from the Bahamas. Emergency officials in Georgia and South Carolina went into 24-hour alert mode.

In Savannah, which hasn't seen a direct hit from a major hurricane in more than a century, Janey Miley took her 15-year-old daughter to Home Depot at lunchtime Tuesday for an impromptu lesson in hurricane preparedness.

They waited in a busy checkout line with a 5-gallon gas can, a circular saw and 10 sheets of plywood in case they needed to board up the windows of their home on nearby Tybee Island. A steady flow of customers pushed carts stocked with everything from batteries to 5,000-watt generators.

"We've never really bought plywood, but it seemed like maybe we'd better do it this time," said Miley, 43, who had also booked hotel reservations in Columbia, S.C., in case her family needed to evacuate.

Local emergency officials for Savannah and surrounding Chatham County urged residents to have an evacuation plan ready. But no decisions on voluntary or mandatory evacuations were expected before Wednesday.

Ken Davis, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said Hanna's unpredictable path made it "a pretty difficult storm" for planners to gauge whether to order evacuations with just a day or two left to decide.

"We're getting closer and closer to the point where decisions have to be made," Davis said. "It's a fine line between calling an evacuation and crying wolf."

Davis said state officials were looking ahead to the possibility of turning Interstate 16 into a one-way escape route westward out of Savannah.

The highway bore the brunt of 2.5 million people fleeing Georgia, Florida and South Carolina when Hurricane Floyd menaced the coast in 1999.

The Georgia State Patrol has since equipped 115 miles of the interstate with orange-striped control gates, much like railroad crossing arms, that can be dropped at entrance ramps to block cars from traveling east during a one-way evacuation.

In Florida, where Hanna is the third storm to threaten in three weeks, Crist's emergency declaration allows the state to more easily mobilize employees, law enforcement personnel and other resources. The governor said residents should prepare for possible flash floods and winds up to 111 mph.

The state Emergency Management Division in South Carolina was monitoring Hanna closely around the clock, but spokesman Derrec Becker said it was too early Tuesday to call for residents to flee.

"At this time there is still so much level of uncertainty, what we're doing right now is simply paying attention to this storm," Becker said.

Meanwhile, college administrators at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., and Charleston Southern University watched the storm for a possible call on whether to cancel football games Saturday, coaches at both schools said.

The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries asked fishermen to monitor Hanna and two other tropical storms – Ike and Josephine – developing far out in the Atlantic. It said fishermen should remove gear such as nets and crab pots from the coastal waters ahead of storms and check their own safety equipment.

FEMA regional administrator Phil May said the agency will send federal liaisons and disaster response teams to Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina on Wednesday to prepare for Hanna.

FEMA is already pouring supplies and resources, like search and rescue teams, into the region. And it is scrambling to move some supplies from the Gulf Coast back toward the Atlantic seaboard.

"We'll be moving things that may have been in position for Gustav back this way in case of Hanna," said May, who is based in Atlanta. "There's a lot of moving parts."

He said a team dispatched to Florida to deal with the remnants of Tropical Storm Fay will stay there to plan for Ike, which could threaten Florida after Hanna passes.