ATLANTA - Gov. Nathan Deal has issued a state of emergency and mandatory evacuations for parts of Georgia ahead of Hurricane Irma.
Deal issued a mandatory evacuation order for all areas east of Interstate 95 along Georgia’s coastline, beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday.
Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security will implement a contraflow for portions of Interstate 16 beginning at 8 a.m. A contraflow means the eastbound lanes will be closed and used for westbound traffic evacuating the coast.
The 30 counties under the state of emergency are: Appling, Atkinson, Bacon, Brantley, Bryan, Bulloch, Burke, Camden, Candler, Charlton, Chatham, Clinch, Coffee, Echols, Effingham, Emanuel, Evans, Glynn, Jenkins, Jeff Davis, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Pierce, Screven, Tattnall, Toombs, Treutlen, Wayne and Ware counties.
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Starting Friday, the I-75 South Metro Express Lanes will remain oriented northbound until further notice. In addition, the lanes will be open to all vehicles regardless of their Peach Pass status, and tolls are being waived.
Traffic backed up on I-75 northbound in Henry County Thursday as people headed north out of Florida, where there are also mandatory evacuations. The traffic is only expected to get worse as more people make their way out of Florida.
Tractor-trailers are prohibited from using the lanes, which are not open to vehicles with more than two axles or six wheels.
The Georgia Department of Transportation said it has been preparing for the increase in traffic.
“In South Georgia, our coastal counties could be affected. Right now, we have many evacuees coming up from Florida, so our roadways are going to get busier and we hope that’s the extent of what we see or just busy roadways with people getting out of the way in Florida. But the reality is, this could hit us on our coast. This could cause some flooding in South Georgia. We just don’t know yet,” GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said.
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GDOT said it is working with GEMA to prepare for the worst-case scenario. GDOT said it is expecting heavy traffic on I-75 as evacuees seek safety and also is getting ready for what roadways will look like after Irma passes.
“We have our crews sweeping the shoulders on our busiest interstates in South Georgia to make sure in an emergency situation, with those emergency vehicles, Georgia State Patrol are running down those shoulders that they are clear and safe for them, so we are very busy preparing,” Dale said.
A heavy and steady stream of evacuees from Florida were flying and driving into metro Atlanta Thursday night, looking to get out of the path of Hurricane Irma.
In the traffic are families like the Cobbs, from Jacksonville, who arrived seeking shelter from Hurricane Irma.
"So far, it wasn't too bad but here in the last 30 minutes it's been a little tight," Richard Cobb told Channel 2’s Carl Willis.
Traffic was heavier than usual around Locust Grove on Thursday evening, but the Cobbs are relieved to be out of harm's of way as Irma threatens Florida.
Currently, the storm is bearing down on the Turks and Caicos islands and headed to the Bahamas where Jonae Reckley awaits landfall in her home in Nassau.
"Just the wind, we heard it's 170 miles an hour. I'm just hoping that that slows down a little bit. Because the wind really destroys stuff for us. So, I think our biggest concern right now," Reckley told Willis.
Meanwhile, the Cobbs head off to shelter with relatives in Atlanta.
"Safety and human life is more important than anything else," Cobb said.
Severe Weather Team 2 is tracking the massive storm to bring you updates on Channel 2 Action News and WSBTV.com. Stay with Channel 2 for continuing coverage of the storm and its impacts in Georgia.
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