ST. MARYS, Ga. — Lori Crowe is frightened at the thought of Hurricane Matthew looming near while she sits inside a coastal Georgia saloon less than a block away from shore.
Crowe, 50, was among a dozen people trying to find comfort late Thursday at the Seagle’s Saloon in St. Marys, Georgia, as light rain began to fall. Crowe and three friends left Neptune Beach, Florida, in search of a hotel, but couldn’t find anything until they wound up at the saloon as other patrons shared stories of past storms.
For Crowe, this could be her first hurricane encounter.
“I’m scared to death,” she said while holding her Yorkshire terrier named Brie. “I’d never been through anything like this. The people who live around here have been reassuring.”
The National Hurricane Center said coastal Georgia could begin seeing sustained winds of up to 65 mph by Friday morning. Forecasts called for a storm surge of 7 to 11 feet along coastal waters and 6 to 10 inches of rain. Matthew was forecast to pass dangerously close to the Georgia coastline Saturday morning.
Gov. Nathan Deal urged coastal residents to take the evacuation order seriously. But he also acknowledged the state couldn’t force people to leave.
“We’re not going to drag anybody out their houses,” Deal said.
And not everybody was running.
Seagle’s Saloon owner Jerry Brandon, who also owns the historic Riverview Hotel next door, said he plans to stay at the hotel. He is concerned about the storm surge possibly reaching the hotel, which located directly across the shoreline.
“A lot of people have left,” said Brandon, 73, former mayor and councilman of St. Mary’s. “That’s the reason I’m bartending tonight. My bartender’s on the way to Dublin, our cooks have left town.”
In St. Marys, almost none of the homes on streets near the beach were boarded up.
On St. Simons Island about 70 miles south of Savannah, Jennifer Banker and her husband packed up valuables from their beachfront home and prepared to leave. She said the prospect of several feet of storm surge swamping their house was “very scary.”
“Yeah, we’re absolutely concerned about what we’re going to come back to,” Banker said. “We have a house that sits right here on the water and we kind of said goodbye to it.”
An interstate highway became a one-way escape route out of Savannah on Thursday as roughly 500,000 people were ordered to flee the Georgia coast ahead of dangerous Hurricane Matthew.
Deal ordered mandatory evacuations for all coastal residents east of Interstate 95 as the National Hurricane Center placed all 100 miles of coastal Georgia under a hurricane warning.
Matthew marks the first time a hurricane evacuation has been ordered for coastal Georgia since 1999, when the Savannah area had a near-miss with Hurricane Floyd.
As they did 17 years ago, the Georgia State Patrol and Department of Transportation on Thursday turned Interstate 16 into a one-way evacuation route away from the coast. DOT spokeswoman Jill Nagel said state troopers would route traffic westbound across all lanes of the interstate along a 125-mile stretch from Savannah to Dublin.
“Hurricane Matthew is a storm not to be messed with,” Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach said Thursday morning, urging residents to leave town. “If you decide to ride it out, do not expect us to be there to help you.”
Many in Georgia’s oldest city, which hasn’t suffered a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1898, moved swiftly to comply.
Dozens of people without cars carried small suitcases, backpacks and diaper bags outside the Savannah Civic Center, where a long line of school buses idled in the parking lot prepared to take them to shelter inland. Emergency officials later said 630 Savannah-area residents boarded buses to Augusta.
“I’d rather be gone,” said Babett Biggins, 50, who was waiting for a bus with her two grown daughters, four grandchildren and other family members. She said she’s a lifetime Savannah resident, but a hurricane novice: “I’ve never been in any of them and I don’t want to experience one.”
Darcy O’Connor and her husband planned to ride out the storm at their row house in Savannah’s downtown historic district. She had plywood out to board up her ground-floor windows Thursday and was helping a neighbor move potted plants.
O’Connor noted her home was built in 1883 and had weathered hurricanes before.
“Half the windows, if you look, still have the original glass,” O’Connor said. “So that tells you something.”
Associated Press reporters Johnny Clark on St. Simons Island and Jonathan Landrum Jr. in Atlanta contributed to this story.