BRUNSWICK, Ga. — More than 100,000 residents were without power in coastal Georgia as gusty winds strengthened and rain grew more severe with Hurricane Matthew swirling toward the region Friday night.
Outages could climb through the night in the storm-struck counties of Chatham, Glynn, Camden and McIntosh, Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said. He said utility company crewmembers are expected to head toward the storm-hit areas Saturday after the weather clears.
The National Hurricane Center warned that hurricane conditions could be arriving overnight and continuing into Saturday. The warning included threats of life-threatening flooding in coastal areas.
Most of Tybee Island’s 3,000 residents had already fled the storm, and emergency responders left as well Friday as Matthew’s outer bands lashed the island and the rain and high tide threatened to flood the only way out.
Jeff Dickey had hoped for a shift that would spare his waterfront home on Tybee Island near Savannah but decided staying wasn’t worth the risk as soaking rains began to fall.
“We kind of tried to wait to see if it will tilt more to the east,” said Dickey, who loaded a diesel-powered generator into his pickup truck before hitting the road with his mother and two daughters. “But it’s go time.”
But Calvin Ratterree was still serving beer and liquor to about a dozen customers before lunch at his bar, even as his customers got personal calls from their frustrated mayor, begging them to leave.
“I’m committed. I’d rather be here with the people that support me and need me.” said Ratterree, who owns Nickie’s 1971 bar, about a block from Georgia’s largest public beach.
Mayor Jason Buelterman was taking names of people believed to remain on the island and had police officers join him in making the calls.
“This is what happens when you don’t have a hurricane for 100 years,” Buelterman said. “People get complacent. They just don’t know. Thankfully, it’s a very small minority.”
Gov. Nathan Deal said Hurricane Matthew evacuees should not rush back to their homes in coastal Georgia after the storm passes.
Steve Todd, having a drink with neighbors at the bar, made sure his wife and child and their two dogs evacuated, but said he wanted to “make sure my house stays here.”
“I’m guarding my belongings at this point.” Todd shrugged. “If we left, we might not be able to get back to the island for a week or more.”
Roadways and bridges need to be reassessed to make sure they are safe for passage, Deal said. The governor said he doesn’t want people to put their lives in jeopardy until after utility crews are able to inspect the area.
Georgia has only 100 miles of coast tucked between South Carolina and Florida, a relatively small target for direct hurricane strikes. It’s also the westernmost part of the eastern seaboard, which helps explain why no major hurricane — Category 3 or greater — has made landfall on the Georgia coast since 1898.
But that doesn’t mean the past 118 years have been storm-free. Hurricane David made landfall in Georgia as a Category 2 storm in 1979, following a very similar coastline-hugging path as Matthew. But David was a weaker storm and did little overall damage.
The Georgia coast last evacuated for Hurricane Floyd in 1999, but that storm took a last minute turn and came ashore in North Carolina.
Tropical Storm Hermine sent tree limbs falling and caused widespread power outages in the Savannah area barely a month ago, arriving over land after coming ashore as a hurricane on the Gulf coast of Florida.
In coastal Savannah, Dennis Jones, emergency management director for Chatham County, told a news conference Friday morning that people had just a few more hours before powerful winds start hitting.
“Once the wind starts blowing, we’re pulling all emergency services off the street,” he said.
Police in several coastal counties announced they would be enforcing curfews.
Transportation officials announced the closure at noon Friday of the Talmadge Memorial Bridge, which spans the Savannah River between downtown Savannah and Hutchinson Island. Two hours earlier and farther south, they closed the Sidney Lanier Bridge to the barrier islands off Brunswick, which include Jekyll Island, Sea Island, St. Simons Island and Little St. Simons Island.
Officials said high winds would likely make it difficult for drivers to control their vehicles on the bridges.
Robin and Greg Bontrager removed loose items including sails and canvas from their boat, and double-tied it to Dock 3 in Brunswick in the pouring rain Friday morning.
Retired schoolteachers who decided life was too short to skip adventures, the couple lives on the 42-foot Hunter sailboat, called “Always and Forever.” But on Friday, they were leaving with their dogs for a motel.
“No one ever wants to leave their home, whether it’s a forest fire, a tornado, a hurricane, whatever the natural disaster might be,” she said. “And we’re not sure what we’re going to come back to.”
Associated Press writer Kate Brumback and Jonathan Landrum Jr. contributed to this report from Atlanta.