Gov. Nathan Deal urged coastal Georgia residents to heed his evacuation order as Hurricane Matthew rumbles north, warning that torrential rainfall and strong winds could cause widespread damage.
“We need to take this situation seriously,” Deal said at a Thursday press conference. “It’s not something we should jeopardize someone’s life because we don’t want to heed the warnings.”
The governor called for a voluntary evacuation of the more than 500,000 people in six coastal Georgia counties late Wednesday, and then ordered a mandatory evacuation of residents living east of Interstate 95 early Thursday. State officials say at least 100,000 people live in that zone.
Deal and his deputies used the word “cautious” and “measured” several times during Thursday’s press conference to describe the state’s response to the hurricane, which is expected to score a direct hit on Florida by Friday and then rake Georgia and South Carolina.
“We are being cautious but we don’t want anyone to panic,” said Deal. “We are prepared as we can be for this crisis.”
State emergency officials have moved hundreds of staffers near the coast, and pilots moved state aircraft to higher ground in case they’re needed for search-and-rescue missions when Matthew passes. The governor activated 65 members of the Georgia National Guard to help evacuate residents along Interstate 16, where all lanes are now flowing west.
“We aren’t going to go dragging anyone out of their houses against their will,” Deal said. “But the mandatory evacuation is significant. It’s the highest warning we can give to people on the urgency of evacuating.”
Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said about 800 workers are on call to remove debris and inspect bridges after the storm hits. He warned drivers not to be “too eager” to get back on the roads after the storm passes, warning of downed power lines and other debris.
The governor said he has tried to be “very cautious” in his warnings to the public. But the storm has already forced the evacuation of millions in Florida and South Carolina, and he said it could pack a deadly punch when it arrives on Georgia’s coast.
“This can be a dangerous storm. It can inflict the loss of life if people don’t take precautions,” he said, adding: “I have not been one who has overreacted. But we want to imply this is serious.”
Read more of the AJC's Hurricane Matthew coverage: