Georgia residents in many southern, central and coastal counties braced for Hermine as the tropical storm strengthened into a hurricane Thursday and steamed toward Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Residents along the coast put up shutters, nailed plywood across store windows and braced for the first hurricane to hit Florida in over a decade.
The National Hurricane Center said the storm’s winds reached about 75 mph in the afternoon, just above the 74 mph hurricane threshold.
As the storm strengthened, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 56 counties ahead of the Labor Day weekend, which is expected to see large numbers of people on the road. The alert took effect at noon Thursday and runs through midnight Saturday.
Severe weather related to the storm is expected in Georgia through Saturday. The counties included are in parts of south, central and coastal Georgia, including areas around Macon, Augusta and Savannah. Though Hermine’s effects are not expected to extend to North Georgia, its approach could affect travelers headed to the area.
The Georgia Department of Transportation warned of a variety of dangers from the storm.
“The (National Weather Service) anticipates a triple threat of potential tornadoes, flooding and high sustained winds beginning (Thursday) night into Friday evening. The expected sustained winds may result in downed trees and power lines,” according to a DOT press release. “The potential tornado threat will continue as the storm moves to the west and northwest across the southern portion of Georgia. The storm is currently projected to move rapidly and could cause tornadoes to spawn very quickly with little to no lead time.”
DOT was planning to deploy crews in anticipation of needs for help during and after the storm.
“We urge motorists to pay attention to warnings and advisories to stay off the roads due to the potential for flash flooding and downed trees,” said DOT Maintenance Engineer Dale Brantley in a news release. “Our crews will work quickly to remove any dangers from the roadway, but we need to be able to get to trouble spots quickly.”
AAA said drivers should check their tires for proper inflation and tread depth, slow down and leave room between vehicles, avoid cruise control, prepare for low visibility and avoid standing water and flooded roads at all times while traveling in wet conditions. The agency said firmly gripping the steering wheel and anticipating gusts are additional steps to stay safe in the midst of strong winds.
The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency said that the storm’s greatest effect on Georgia could be heavy rainfall.
Director Jim Butterworth said the storm could bring flooding, tornadoes and power outages even if it does not make landfall in Georgia.
Hermine was expected to blow ashore late Thursday or early Friday along the Florida’s Big Bend, the mostly rural and lightly populated corner where the Florida peninsula meets the Panhandle, then push into Georgia, the Carolinas and up the East Coast as a tropical storm, with the potential for heavy rain and flooding.
The Georgia Ports Authority said Thursday both facilities in Savannah and Brunswick will be shut down through today. The closed facilities include Garden City Terminal and Ocean Terminal in Savannah, and the Colonel’s Island Bulk Facility and Mayor’s Point Terminal in Brunswick.
Ports Authority executive director Griff Lynch says an “abundance of caution” has been taken for the safety of port employees and local residents.
Campuses at Georgia Southern, Valdosta State and Albany State universities and Darton State College closed campuses for Friday.
Associated Press reports contributed to this story.