SAVANNAH — Great uncertainty remained Friday about Hurricane Irma's path beyond Florida with forecasts showing potential storm impacts from portions of the Carolinas and Alabama as well as the entirety of Georgia, a state that's become an escape route for hundreds of thousands of evacuees.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal noted Irma's unpredictability at a news conference in Atlanta Friday after the National Hurricane Center nudged the storm's predicted track significantly westward. Regardless, Deal stuck by his evacuation order issued a day earlier for Georgia's nearly 540,000 coastal residents to leave beginning Saturday morning.
"This is a rapidly moving hurricane and the weather and the consequences of that hurricane can change dramatically within a short period of time," Deal said.
While he didn't call for any evacuations beyond Georgia's coast, Deal expanded a pre-emptive emergency declaration Friday to cover 94 of the state's 159 counties to reflect the various paths Irma could take.
The official forecast track Friday afternoon showed Irma churning up the Florida peninsula over the weekend before crossing the Georgia-Florida line Monday far inland from the coast.
But forecasters built in substantial room for error, saying Irma could rake Florida's east coast on a northward path over the Atlantic Ocean toward Savannah at the Georgia-South Carolina line. Or the storm could veer further west and cross the Florida Panhandle into Alabama.
So where should evacuating residents go? In Chatham County, Georgia's most populous coastal county that includes Savannah, emergency management director Dennis Jones had said Thursday they should "just move west." But after forecasters shifted Irma's potential impacts westward, he had trouble answering the same question Friday.
"Honestly, I can't tell you where safe is," Jones told reporters at a news conference.
Neighboring South Carolina was also preparing for potential in landlocked counties while Gov. Henry McMaster rescinded parts of an order requiring coastal health facilities to move patients inland. With forecasts Friday shifting Irma away from the state's coastline, McMaster still hadn't made a decision on whether evacuations were needed. He planned an evening news conference.
A direct hit from Irma appeared increasingly unlikely in North Carolina, where emergency officials urged people to stay vigilant with preparations.
"We are not in the clear and we can't let our guard down," Gov. Roy Cooper said.
On Tybee Island east of Savannah, Ernie Laessig wasn't taking any chances with Irma. Laessig and his wife rode out Hurricane Matthew as it brushed coastal Georgia last October. But they fear Irma could prove more dangerous.
"Well it is changing hour by hour, minute by minute," Laessig said as he prepared to leave Friday for Athens, Georgia, 234 miles (376 kilometers) northwest. "But the longer you wait you could be stuck here and it could change again for the worse. So I'm sticking with my final decision and we're out of here."
An eastward shift in Irma's track could bring up to 12 feet of storm surge to portions of coastal Georgia, where the resulting wall of water could become even larger if the storm arrived at high tide, the National Weather Service said. Southeast Georgia could get 10 to 12 inches or rain.
If Irma sticks to a more westward inland path, it could arrive in Georgia as a weakened tropical storm. But more inland communities could see heavy winds and rain along with an elevated risk of tornadoes.
Many Florida evacuees using Interstate 75 are streaming into Lowndes County at the Georgia-Florida line. It's also about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the coast. County spokeswoman Paige Dukes said Friday local officials are now concerned they could see a "direct hit" from Irma.
"Now we're looking at hurricane-force winds in excess of 79 mph," Dukes said. "We have a significant amount of mobile homes in our community and all of our RV parks are full. That's what a lot of people who evacuated are using for shelter."