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Southern US coast nervously watches Hanna
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, right, declares a state of emergency at a briefing with Division of Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate Tuesday morning, Sept. 2, 2008, at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, Fla. Crist charted four major storm systems -- Gustav, Hanna, Ike and Josephine -- which are currently being tracked . - photo by Associated Press
    SAVANNAH, Ga. — Nervous residents rushed to buy plywood and generators while emergency officials in Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas weighed possible evacuations Tuesday as Tropical Storm Hanna shifted toward a tough-to-predict landfall along the southern Atlantic coast by the end of the week.
    Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency as Hannah, downgraded from hurricane status Tuesday but with ample time to regain strength, began a turn to the northwest from the Bahamas. Emergency officials in Georgia and South Carolina went into 24-hour alert mode.
    In Savannah, which hasn’t seen a direct hit from a major hurricane in more than a century, Janey Miley took her 15-year-old daughter to Home Depot at lunchtime Tuesday for an impromptu lesson in hurricane preparedness.
    They waited in a busy checkout line with a 5-gallon gas can, a circular saw and 10 sheets of plywood in case they needed to board up the windows of their home on nearby Tybee Island. A steady flow of customers pushed carts stocked with everything from batteries to 5,000-watt generators.
    ‘‘We’ve never really bought plywood, but it seemed like maybe we’d better do it this time,’’ said Miley, 43, who had also booked hotel reservations in Columbia, S.C., in case her family needed to evacuate.
    The National Hurricane Center predicted Hannah would most likely come ashore as a hurricane between Friday and Saturday somewhere between the east coast of Florida and the North Carolina coast. Forecasts Tuesday showed the storm making landfall near the Georgia-South Carolina border.
    Local emergency officials for Savannah and surrounding Chatham County urged residents to have an evacuation plan ready. But no decisions on voluntary or mandatory evacuations were expected before Wednesday.
    Ken Davis, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said Hanna’s unpredictable path made it ‘‘a pretty difficult storm’’ for planners to gauge whether to order evacuations with just a day or two left to decide.
    ‘‘We’re getting closer and closer to the point where decisions have to be made,’’ Davis said. ‘‘It’s a fine line between calling an evacuation and crying wolf.’’
    Davis said state officials were looking ahead to the possibility of turning Interstate 16 into a one-way escape route westward out of Savannah.
    The highway bore the brunt of 2.5 million people fleeing Georgia, Florida and South Carolina when Hurricane Floyd menaced the coast in 1999.
    The Georgia State Patrol has since equipped 115 miles of the interstate with orange-striped control gates, much like railroad crossing arms, that can be dropped at entrance ramps to block cars from traveling east during a one-way evacuation.
    In Florida, where Hanna is the third storm to threaten in three weeks, Crist’s emergency declaration allows the state to more easily mobilize employees, law enforcement personnel and other resources. The governor said residents should prepare for possible flash floods and winds up to 111 mph.
    The state Emergency Management Division in South Carolina was monitoring Hanna closely around the clock, but spokesman Derrec Becker said it was too early Tuesday to call for residents to flee.
    ‘‘At this time there is still so much level of uncertainty, what we’re doing right now is simply paying attention to this storm,’’ Becker said.
    Meanwhile, college administrators at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., and Charleston Southern University watched the storm for a possible call on whether to cancel football games Saturday, coaches at both schools said.
    The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries asked fishermen to monitor Hanna and two other tropical storms — Ike and Josephine — developing far out in the Atlantic. It said fishermen should remove gear such as nets and crab pots from the coastal waters ahead of storms and check their own safety equipment.
    FEMA regional administrator Phil May said the agency will send federal liaisons and disaster response teams to Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina on Wednesday to prepare for Hanna.
    FEMA is already pouring supplies and resources, like search and rescue teams, into the region. And it’s scrambling to move some supplies from the Gulf Coast back toward the Atlantic seaboard.
    ‘‘We’ll be moving things that may have been in position for Gustav back this way in case of Hanna,’’ said May, who is based in Atlanta. ‘‘There’s a lot of moving parts.’’
    He said a team dispatched to Florida to deal with the remnants of Tropical Storm Fay will stay there to plan for Ike, which could threaten Florida after Hanna passes.
    Associated Press writers Greg Bluestein in Atlanta, Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C., Estes Thompson in Raleigh, N.C., and Travis Reed in Miami contributed to this story.

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