SAVANNAH — Georgia's governor on Thursday ordered nearly 540,000 coastal residents to evacuate inland ahead of Hurricane Irma as authorities warned the storm had the potential to strike as a major hurricane, something the Georgia coast hasn't seen in more than a century.
"If there's a freight train coming at you, then you get off the tracks," said Jason Buelterman, mayor of Tybee Island, a beach community of more than 3,000 residents east of Savannah.
Gov. Nathan Deal ordered all six Georgia coastal counties to start evacuating at 8 a.m. Saturday. That's when officials planned to turn all lanes of Interstate 16 into a one-way route inland, sending traffic west from Savannah. However, some local governments urged people to leave as soon as possible Friday.
It's the second time in less than a year that Georgia coastal residents have been told to flee a storm. The last time was when Hurricane Matthew brushed the state's 100-mile (160-kilometer) coast without coming ashore last October. That storm caused three deaths in Georgia and an estimated $500 million in damage.
Traffic was already heavy on Interstate 75 to Atlanta by Thursday afternoon as evacuees left Florida. Forecasts called for Irma's core to be near the Georgia-Florida line Monday morning, though the exact path remained uncertain.
In Chatham County, Georgia's most populous coastal county that includes Savannah, emergency management director Dennis Jones warned Irma could bash the coast with 15 feet (4.5 meters) of storm surge and force floodwaters up two rivers, potentially swamping 60 percent of the county.
"What we saw during Matthew could exponentially increase," Jones said.
He held out the possibility that Irma could strike Georgia as a Category 3 or greater hurricane. The last storm that powerful to make landfall on the Georgia coast struck in 1898.
Becky and Mike Gerald evacuated their Tybee Island condo a block from the beach for Matthew. Though that storm ripped away portions of some neighbors' roofs, the couple returned to a home unscathed.
Even after Georgia's evacuation order was issued, they talked of riding out Irma at home.
"I may not go at Category 3 if the surge isn't so high," Mike Gerald said.
"I don't know, honey," his wife replied. "Where do we have to go except the bathroom and the back bedroom?"
Still, Becky Gerald said she planned to remain on the island if Irma wasn't forecast to hit as a major storm: "There's just things I can't save. I have all my mother's antiques. You spend your whole life working hard and in a flash it's all gone."
No evacuations had been declared yet in South Carolina, which was last hit by a major hurricane about 28 years ago. Gov. Henry McMaster could order coastal residents to evacuate their homes starting Saturday morning — his state already already prepared to open 200 shelters and transport 10,000 people by bus if needed.
The biggest question seemed to be not whether he would issue an order, but what counties would be included — depending on the next forecasts.
"If you can leave now, go ahead," McMaster told a news conference Thursday. "A lot more people on the roads are going to slow things down."
In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper told people to prepare even as projections had a weakened Irma entering the state well inland early next week.
"This storm can impact any part of North Carolina — all over our state from the mountains to the coast," Cooper said. "Just because that it might be at tropical-storm strength doesn't mean this storm isn't going to be very dangerous."
Ed Putnam wasn't taking chances. He drove to St. Helena Island in coastal South Carolina with a truckload of supplies to get his cabin, boat and sailboat storm-ready — but wasn't sticking around after seeing footage of Irma's Caribbean devastation.
"I've seen the videos of what happened to those poor people on those islands," Putnam said. "If this is as strong as they say it is going to be, then there is no choice. Your life is more important than anything else."