Georgia and Florida didn’t play wait and see with Hurricane Irma

Heavy traffic traveling north bound on Interstate 75 moves slowly, as a major evacuation has begun in preparation for Hurricane Irma, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, in Forrest Park, south of Atlanta.
Heavy traffic traveling north bound on Interstate 75 moves slowly, as a major evacuation has begun in preparation for Hurricane Irma, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, in Forrest Park, south of Atlanta. AP

Hurricane Harvey turned most of south Texas into an adjunct of the Gulf of Mexico that expanded for almost 30,000 square miles covered by, according to the National Weather Service, 20 inches of rain. Included were 11,492 square miles covered with 30 inches of rain and 3,643 square miles from Houston to Beaumont where 40 inches of rain were dumped. This from a storm that hit Rockport, Texas as a Category 4 hurricane packing 130 mph winds. Harvey was a record breaker.

It is with that disaster — not in the rear view mirror yet — that Hurricane Irma comes into view, setting its sights on Florida and Georgia after blowing past the Caribbean as a Category 5 hurricane with 175 mph winds. No bigger storm has ever been recorded, not even Harvey. Many Floridians will remember Hurricane Andrew. It was also a Category 4 storm that left south Florida a wreak. But not even Andrew could match the size of Hurricane Irma.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott didn’t waste time. He declared a state of emergency for all of Florida on Labor Day. He called up all of the state’s National Guardsmen, and by Thursday, there was a mandatory evacuation order impacting 650,000 south Florida residents.

Also on Thursday, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal expanded his state of emergency from six to 24 counties and issued a mandatory evacuation order for all areas east of Interstate 95, all of Chatham County, and some areas west of I-95. By Friday morning, six more counties were added to the list. Gov. Scott could not have been more clear when he told “CBS This Morning” on Thursday, “You’ve got to listen to your local officials — this storm surge can kill you,”

And, after Harvey, people were paying attention and hitting the roads headed north. Unfortunately, by Thursday, all Middle Georgia area hotels and motels were at capacity.

The Georgia evacuation order went into action at 8 a.m. Saturday and all eastbound lanes on Interstate 16 were contraflowed west toward Macon where shelters were already open (East Macon Park opened on Thursday, North Macon on Friday and Macon State Farmers Market opened a pet shelter Thursday). The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army were already recruiting and training volunteers and accepting donations and opening shelters.

Red Cross Disaster Program Manager Rodney Miller says "It's official now" after planting a sign in front of the East Macon Park gym where his organization was setting up to provide shelter for those affected by Hurricane Irma Thursday. Beau Cabell bcabell@macon.com

Middle Georgia didn’t miss a beat. On Thursday, the Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter opened as an Equine evacuation site on a first come, first serve basis for those fleeing Hurricane Irma. That had to be welcome news for people, particularly those from Florida’s Ocala-Marion County area, that’s home to 1,200 horse farms.

Florida highways started to clog up almost immediately, but gasoline was in short supply. Trucks carrying fuel to resupply stations were given escorts by the state patrol to get them through traffic and stations were urged to remain open to handle the evacuees.

Gov. Deal also called up 5,000 National Guardsmen to help with “preparation, response and recovery” efforts due to the hurricane. Both governors were taking no chances. While some of the tracking models show Hurricane Irma hitting Alabama and South Carolina, most of the models put Florida and Georgia directly in the storm’s path.

After this is all over, arm chair quarterbacks, as they are accustomed to doing, will access, (in their considered, expert opinion, though they have no actual experience in such situations), what should have been done or not. Those same quarterbacks took center stage for a time after Harvey, second-guessing whether a mandatory evacuation should have been ordered. However, every hurricane is different — as different as the topography of Georgia, Florida and Texas. There is no one-size-fits-all hurricane evacuation decision. And the old familiar phrase remains true: “Better to be safe than sorry.”

It is too soon to write Irma’s story — at least its final chapters. This is what we know: Our guests have arrived — worried guests who have visions of stricken Texans stuck in their minds. They are wondering if they’ll soon join them as victims of the one-two punch of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. We may not have a red carpet, but we’ll be sure to have someplace dry where they can take a load off. We’ll comfort them, as best we can, pray for their safety and we’ll offer them our friendly never-met-a-stranger smiles. And when the time comes, like the rest of America, we’ll help put them on the road to recovery.