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Hanna nears as Ike strengthens
Area agencies have plans in place to deal with evacuations
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Larry Tyson, director of emergency services for the American Red Cross in Gainesville, talks about preparing for hurricanes.

Statistically, Sept. 10 is the peak day of the Atlantic hurricane season. And this year, the storms are coming in right on schedule.

On Aug. 26, rain bands from Tropical Storm Fay slammed North Georgia, spinning off several tornadoes in and near Hall County. On Sept. 1, Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast, prompting the evacuation of almost 2 million people but causing far less damage than feared.

This morning, Tropical Storm Hanna is expected to move up from the Bahamas, skirt alongside Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, and make landfall Saturday in North Carolina.

Hovering out in the Atlantic is Hurricane Ike, which had swollen to a massive Category 4 storm by Thursday morning. And beyond Ike is Tropical Storm Josephine, whose future path and strength are still a mystery.

Larry Tyson, director of emergency services for the American Red Cross chapter in Gainesville, said he’s relieved that Hanna has apparently fizzled, because disaster response officials needed a break.

"I was glad to see Hanna turn away from Georgia," he said. "(Gustav) has really taxed our resources nationwide."

He said about 1,000 Louisiana residents stayed in Red Cross shelters in Georgia after evacuating from Gustav last weekend. By Thursday, the Red Cross had begun closing those shelters, none of which were in the Gainesville area.

Tyson said if Hanna had continued heading toward Georgia, any remaining Gustav evacuees would have been moved to shelters farther west, and new shelters would have been opened up along evacuation routes from the East Coast to accommodate Hanna evacuees.

Earlier this week, forecasters thought Hanna might make landfall near Savannah, which would have been the first time in more than a century that Georgia had taken a direct hit from a major hurricane.

Ken Davis, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said the past few days have been hectic.

"We had been preparing for a possible landfall, with storm surges, high winds and beach erosion," he said. "With evacuations, you can’t wait until the storm hits, because then it’s too dangerous to move people."

Davis said evacuation routes aren’t designated until officials know the probable path of the storm. But it’s likely that I-16 would have been converted to a one-way route if evacuation had been necessary.

Georgia successfully used this one-way system in September 1999, when residents of South Georgia and Florida were fleeing Hurricane Floyd.

Davis said GEMA’s central operations center in Atlanta had been staffed round the clock since Tuesday morning. "We’re still tracking Hanna," he said Thursday. "But we’ll probably downscale after 7 p.m. (Thursday)."

Davis expects GEMA will have to rev up to full speed again soon.

"Before the middle of next week, we’ll probably be back in 24-hour operation because of Ike," he said. "It may hit the northern Caribbean Monday or Tuesday, and if it maintains its intensity, it will certainly require attention. At a Category 4, it’s still going to be a major storm, even if it weakens a little before it gets here."

Shirley Lamback, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, said no one knows where Ike will hit.

"There are several projected tracks, but Ike is still too far away to make any predictions," she said. "It’s pretty likely that it will be stronger than Hanna. Shear from Hanna could weaken Ike somewhat, but we still may get rain bands from it."

Hanna itself is not expected to have any effect at all on North Georgia’s weather, Lamback said. The probability of rain through this weekend is no more than 20 to 30 percent, and it won’t be related to Hanna.

"A weak front from the west may bring a slight chance of showers Friday and Saturday," she said.

If this is the literal calm before the storm, Davis hopes people will be using the down time to get ready for a possible weather emergency.

"Coincidentally, September is National Preparedness Month," he said. "All of these storms have heightened awareness (about weather disasters)."

Tyson agrees, noting that the majority of people still have not heeded advice to compile an emergency preparedness kit containing essential items.

"If there’s a major disaster, people need to be ready to be self-sufficient for at least the first 72 hours," he said.

Meanwhile, Red Cross officials are bracing themselves for the rest of the hurricane season, which runs through November.

"We’ve been having regular conference calls with GEMA, and we’re ready to jump up at a moment’s notice," Tyson said.

He said people should remember that even if a tropical storm bypasses Georgia, it can sling off bands of rain that trigger tornadoes, as Fay did. And if a tornado is approaching, no one will have time to prepare.

"At least with a hurricane, we know it’s coming and we can get out of the way," he said. "With tornadoes, you have almost no warning."