VALDOSTA, Ga. — From rural farm communities to coastal beaches, southern Georgia residents found it impossible Thursday to escape the approach of Hurricane Hermine.
Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 56 counties that were under a tropical storm warning. The area bracing for powerful winds and heavy rains from the storm nearly covered the southern half of the state.
Holly Murkerson started the day on the coast in Savannah, where the conference she was attending got cancelled because of the oncoming storm. So she headed home to Cairo, a rural town 240 miles to the southwest — and also under the storm warning.
“They said, ‘Hey, get out of here. It’s going to get rough,'” said Murkerson, who was preparing for the possibility of several days without electricity when she got home. She and her husband stopped Thursday evening at a Wal-Mart in Valdosta, where they bought bread, lunch meat and 105 bottles of water.
Hermine was forecast to make landfall in northwest Florida and quickly push into southern Georgia by early Friday. Valdosta, located about 15 miles north of the Florida line, was one of the first Georgia communities in the storm’s predicted path.
Workers in Valdosta and surrounding Lowndes County spent much of Thursday clearing storm drains and roadside ditches in hopes of alleviating flooding from an anticipated 7 to 9 inches of rain. With winds at or near hurricane strength expected as the storm passed Friday morning, officials were urging most residents to stay put.
“Most of it’s going to be trying to get people to stay hunkered down at home,” said Bill Slaughter, the Lowndes County commission chairman.
Not everybody felt safe under their own roofs. About a dozen people showed up Thursday evening to stay at a Red Cross shelter that opened at a city auditorium normally used for banquets and gospel concerts.
Cynthia Arnold left her mobile home to check into the shelter with her brother and her 5-year-old grandson. She said her husband and a teenage nephew stayed behind.
“I’m not just going to sit there and be ignorant,” Arnold said.
The storm’s greatest effect on Georgia could be heavy rainfall, Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency officials said. Director Jim Butterworth said the storm could bring flooding, tornadoes and power outages. The storm was upgraded to a hurricane Thursday afternoon, and was expected to strike the Florida coast late Thursday or early Friday.
Schools and colleges across southern Georgia canceled classed Friday, and many government offices planned to close.
The state’s busy seaports in Savannah and Brunswick will shut down ahead of the storm as a precaution, said Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.