On Georgia’s coast, Hurricane Matthew’s specter haunts Irma evacuees

Jonathan and Emily Jones evacuated a little under a year ago ahead of Hurricane Matthew, but weren’t at all worried at the time.

“We thought it was for nothing,” Emily Jones said. “We got back to a war zone.”

They returned to a flooded street with downed trees and no power for nearly two weeks — and they didn’t get anywhere near the damage some of their neighbors suffered.

So with Matthew’s destruction fresh in their memory as Hurricane Irma churns ever closer, the Joneses frantically packed up and shoved out of town Friday with Addison, 8, and Liam, 3, as soon as Jonathan was done with his work day. He’s an electrician, and many of his clients’ generators needed attention after dealing with the storm that came calling in October 2016.

“A lot of the work we’ve been finishing up is left over from Matthew,” he said as the family buckled in midafternoon, destined for Macon. “We’re headed to higher ground.”

»» RELATED: On Georgia coast, some plan to stay as others flee

»» MORE: Georgia braces for impact of storm, Florida evacuees

Gov. Nathan Deal expanded a state of emergency declaration to 64 more counties on Friday for a total of 94. And he issued a mandatory evacuation order for everyone east of I-95 starting today.

During a Friday morning news conference, Deal discussed the meaning of a “mandatory evacuation order,” noting authorities won’t actually force people to leave.

Those who choose to remain do so with the understanding that emergency personnel will not attempt rescue operations at the height of the storm’s impact, Deal explained. His executive order authorized up to 5,000 Georgia National Guard members to be on active duty to respond to the storm that has killed at least 10 people, snarled traffic, and produced long lines at gas stations and few vacancies at hotels.

Irma also threatens South Georgia residents near rivers that flow into the ocean, said Satilla River Keeper Laura Early.

“Flooding is a concern,” she said Friday afternoon during a break from watching forecasts. “When it rains a lot, the water level goes up really quickly.”

The river originates in Ben Hill County and snakes through Waycross and Waynesville before emptying in the ocean near Woodbine. In Brantley County, which is a county away from the coast, the river and the flood-prone nature of the land has been spurring officials to encourage some residents to leave.

“Please continue to heed evacuation warnings,” the county emergency management agency said in a social media post. “Once the storm hits, emergency personnel will not be able to make it to you, and even after the storm passes there is no definitive time that anyone would be able to assist you.”

No shelters are permitted to open in the county because of the fear of flooding, but transit workers were planning to take residents who need help to Waycross, where Ware County High School was opening as a shelter Friday afternoon.

“The best thing people can do is continue to pay attention to the forecast,” Early said. “We’re hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.”

East of Savannah, Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman issued an evacuation order beginning Friday, as Irma was projected to hit during high tide.

“This is a massive storm that has the potential to cause catastrophic damage to our community,” he said in a statement posted to his public social media accounts. “Please be safe and evacuate in an orderly manner.”

Thursday evening found residents shoveling sand from the volleyball court behind City Hall into sandbags (an officially sanctioned activity), eager to abide.

“Gosh, we’re right on the beach,” said Priscilla Bishop, who recalled the flooding Matthew brought. “If (Irma) hits like they say, I don’t know how much help it’s going to be,” she said of the sandbags. “You just have to feel like you’re doing something.”

Adam Demico had been down at his mother’s Tybee property for fun, but his coastal vacation became a sweaty race against time as Irma approached.

“She lost some shingles and screens in Matthew,” Demico said as he stuffed sandbags. “She was very fortunate.”

Nearby, picnic tables under a pavilion had been upended as a proactive measure. City Hall, the library and numerous homes and businesses were boarded up.

“We never had a direct impact until last year,” said Dottie Klutz, who has lived full time on Tybee, a low-lying barrier island, since 1985. “We’re having a direct impact again this year.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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