ATLANTA — State troopers had loaded up their patrol cars with sleeping bags and pillows, 1,500 Georgia National Guardsmen stood ready and search-and-rescue teams were on standby as Hurricane Michael crashed ashore on the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday.
The Category 4 monster — the fiercest hurricane to hit Florida in a century — was still striving to become a Category 5 when Gov. Nathan Deal stood in the state operations center in Atlanta warning of the inland threat to Georgia.
Deal called the powerful storm “a dangerous, dangerous hurricane” that was unlike one anyone could recall.
“We’re not accustomed to the magnitude of a hurricane such as this hitting in the direction that it is traveling and with the intensity with which it will hit our state,” Deal said during a media briefing Wednesday.
“It’s not going to be a simple walk-away-from-it-with-no-damage,” he added. “It’s going to be one with serious damage, and life should be the primary concern. Protect yourself, protect your family. Help those who need assistance.”
The governor and Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said they are particularly concerned about the state’s pecan groves in south Georgia, where this year’s harvest has only just begun. The storm also poses a serious threat for cotton and peanut growers who are in the midst of their harvest.
“This storm, Michael, will strike deep into the heart of Georgia agriculture,” Black said Wednesday, referring to southwest Georgia.
Deal expanded his state-of-emergency declaration on Wednesday to include more than a dozen additional counties, broadening the designation to encompass a total of 108 counties and reaching as far north as Athens and Elberton. The move was made after Michael’s path shifted farther northeast.
Deal made a similar declaration just a month ago for all 159 counties as Hurricane Florence crept toward Georgia’s coast. That storm later took a northeast lurch and made landfall in North Carolina.
“We haven’t cried wolf too often ourselves and, therefore, I think when we do say that this is a serious matter people will, hopefully, take us seriously,” he said.
As of noon Wednesday, 15 counties had also declared their own local disasters. The state’s operation center had been fully activated and about 2,300 state staffers were poised to help in the state’s recovery. That was in addition to the 1,500 National Guardsmen who had been activated.
State parks-turned-shelters had already welcomed 1,222 evacuees and their pets, and other shelters — including some for just pets — were open or opening across the state.
Georgia’s congressional delegation has also requested that President Donald Trump sign off on an expedited emergency declaration to speed up the availability of federal aid in the counties affected.
Still, Deal cautioned that there are limits to what state and federal authorities can do to help in the wake of the storm.
“Georgians are great people. They have big hearts, and they reach out to help their neighbor in need. This is a time when that is going to be called upon without any doubt,” Deal said. “People on the ground doing what they can do in their own community — that’s going to be an important part of solving this problem successfully.”
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.