Bibb County braces for Hurricane Irma traffic, evacuees and weather

As Hurricane Irma barrels toward south Florida, officials in Bibb County are bracing for an influx of evacuees — and some potentially nasty weather.

A news conference Wednesday afternoon outlined preparations for the storm, which is tracking toward the Southeast. Representatives from public safety agencies, the American Red Cross and the Bibb County school district gave details on shelters, and Middle Georgians were urged to be ready for a worst-case scenario.

“This is a very large, very powerful storm,” Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency Director Spencer Hawkins said. “I cannot stress this enough. Now is the time to prepare.”

Hurricane Irma has a 100-mile diameter and, as of early Wednesday evening, it was moving west-northwest at about 16 miles per hour.

The track of the storm remains uncertain, but it is predicted to turn north and hit land in south Florida this weekend.

“We may start seeing storm impacts late Monday into Tuesday,” Hawkins said. ... The next 48 hours are going to be key.”

While significant rain and strong winds are probable — it’s carrying maximum sustained winds of 185 mph now — an increased number of folks coming to town is certain. Public safety officials also urged people to have home evacuation plans ready.

“Whether we get any weather effects from this storm at all, we are going to have traffic effects,” Bibb County Sheriff David Davis said. “Be mindful of people coming through.”

I’VE ISSUED AN EXECUTIVE ORDER PROHIBITING PRICE GOUGING AND WAIVING RULES AND REGULATIONS FOR MOTOR VEHICLES TRANSPORTING SUPPLIES, EQUIPMENT, PERSONNEL, GOODS AND SERVICES ASSOCIATED WITH DISASTER ASSISTANCE AND RELIEF.

Gov. Nathan Deal

The sheriff encouraged residents to take back roads when they can to reduce traffic on the interstates.

“Show some hospitality to these individuals coming through here,” Davis said. “They’re coming through our town not knowing what they’re going to face when they go back home.”

Hawkins said there’s no estimate for how many evacuees might show up.

By Wednesday afternoon, though, all of the county’s 5,000 or so hotel rooms had been booked, said Gary Wheat, president and CEO of the Macon-Bibb County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

rma's 185-mph winds make it a Category 5 hurricane predicted to bring "catastrophic" destruction. Category 5 hurricanes leave most of the areas they strike uninhabitable for weeks or months. Although Irma's course could shift, Florida Governor Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency for every county in the state.

Caitlin Healy McClatchy
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 Middle Georgia agencies brace for Hurricane Irma
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“We’ve encouraged our hotels to be in constant contact with us” should a room come available, Wheat said.

Gov. Nathan Deal issued a state of emergency Wednesday for six coastal counties: Bryan, Camden, Chatham, Glynn, Liberty and McIntosh.

“I’ve issued an executive order prohibiting price gouging and waiving rules and regulations for motor vehicles transporting supplies, equipment, personnel, goods and services associated with disaster assistance and relief,” Deal wrote in an emailed statement from his office.

Shelters and schools

The American Red Cross and community partners are prepared to open 20 shelters across the state that can hold about 10,000 people, said Connie Hensler, executive director of American Red Cross of Central Midwest Georgia.

The locations of the shelters had not been released as of late Wednesday afternoon.

“We’re working with partners to provide food to the residents that come,” Hensler said. “We have trailers full of supplies that are headed our way that can stop here and travel to Florida.”

The Georgia Department of Agriculture also is getting pet shelters ready.

One location is the Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter in Perry, which will serve as an equine evacuation site. The department has also suspended its Animal Interstate Movement Health Requirements for animals entering the Peach State from Florida.

WE’RE NOW TRYING TO BEEF UP OUR SUPPLY TO BE ABLE TO SUPPLY FOOD TO THE VICTIMS OF HURRICANE IRMA IF AND WHEN SHE BLOWS THROUGH HERE. THE BEST WAY FOR ANYBODY TO BE ABLE TO HELP IS FINANCIALLY. WE CAN TURN $1 INTO FIVE MEALS BECAUSE OF OUR PURCHASING POWER AND THE WAY WE ACQUIRE FOOD.

Janie Sinclair, interim director of the Middle Georgia Community Food Bank

Local schools are also planning for Hurricane Irma.

Bibb County school officials are asking parents to sign up for the system’s automated notification system that alerts them to potential closings.

The school system will update its social media sites and keep local media aware of any changes, said David Gowan, the system’s safety and risk manager.

Also, Wesleyan College is taking in students' families who are evacuating for the hurricane, said Director of Communications Mary Ann Howard.

The school is preparing rooms in two of its residence halls, and families are expected to start arriving Thursday and Friday. As of Wednesday night, 80 families had already requested beds, Howard said.

Food Bank

The Middle Georgia Community Food Bank is accepting financial donations to go toward feeding evacuees and other families in areas impacted by Irma.

The midstate food bank, which serves 24 counties in Georgia, is also assisting America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia in case it has to evacuate Savannah, said Janie Sinclair, interim executive director of the Middle Georgia Community Food Bank.

The Middle Georgia food bank will also be in contact with the nation’s largest food charity, Feeding America, which coordinates disaster relief efforts for about 200 food banks.

“We’re now trying to beef up our supply to be able to supply food to the victims of Hurricane Irma if and when she blows through here,” Sinclair said. “The best way for anybody to be able to help is financially. We can turn $1 into five meals because of our purchasing power and the way we acquire food.”

Journalist Linda Morris

Telegraph writer Andrea Honaker contributed to this report.

Stanley Dunlap: 478-744-4623, @stan_telegraph

Laura Corley: 478-744-4334, @Lauraecor