As Hurricane Irma’s track shifted farther west, many in the Savannah area wondered whether to evacuate as ordered. Some people who at first considered leaving opted to stay, rather than evacuate west to areas increasingly covered by storm trajectories.
Early Saturday afternoon, Gov. Nathan Deal walked back his evacuation order for Chatham County, leaving only Zone A – the marsh and island areas east of Savannah’s Truman Parkway – under mandatory evacuation. The rest of the county shifted to a voluntary evacuation, what the Chatham Emergency Management Agency calls “general evacuation.”
“We’re recommending that you leave, we’re asking you to leave,” agency director Dennis Jones said in a press conference, stressing that the evacuation had not been rescinded or reversed. “You need to make those decisions for your family,” he said.
Hannah Swails was waiting to make her decision.
“I’ve been back and forth, honestly,” she said Saturday morning. “We had made plans to go toward Atlanta or Alabama, but now the storm’s heading that way. We will make the decision tonight.”
In the meantime, Swails and her husband were helping out with the evacuation from the Savannah Civic Center with a volunteer group from their church.
There, residents without their own transportation lined up to board buses headed for shelters in Augusta; 1,356 had moved through as of 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
For some, it was the second time around: they evacuated during Hurricane Matthew less than a year ago. Tarrayl Wright was waiting to leave with his whole family, from his grandfather to several toddlers.
“It’s nothing to it. It’s just like last year,” he said. “We load up as a family, we leave as a family, we come back as a family.”
Wright said the decision to leave seems clear. “Irma ain’t playing,” he said. “She’s coming through, she’s tearing it up. She ain’t playing.”
Others opted to leave this time after staying for Matthew.
“It was a trauma,” Katie Mae Devine said of the 2016 storm, which she rode out at her sister’s house. “It was real bad. Trees were falling, lights went out. It seemed like the end of the world, mostly ‘cause it was dark and big old oak trees was colliding.”
Once a storm starts, she said, you’re “stuck like mud” wherever you are. She didn’t want to be stuck again this time.
Over the last several days, many people have also left the Savannah area in their own cars, packing up kids and pets to head for family, friends or hotels in Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and beyond.
But others have opted to stay home. There are as many different reasons for staying as there are people who are doing so. Amber and Travis Combs own an exotic pets store in Guyton.
“There’s probably roughly around 200 animals that would be individually bagged, put in totes and loaded into – it has to go into a vehicle so we can keep the temperature right,” Travis explained. “Because we don’t want to be sitting on 16 in stopped traffic with 80 – 90 degree weather and a trailer heating up. Luckily with what we have now, our reticulated pythons are not big. They’re all small so we’re not having to move any 20 foot snakes. Next year will be a different story.”
“We’re definitely going to have to make sure we have a good plan for evacuation for next year,” noted Amber.
This year they say they’ll try to profit while they ride out the storm. The change in barometric pressure that comes with a big storm can actually put the snakes in the mood to mate.
“That’s another reason we wanted to stay,” Amber said. “We’ve got some females back there that are not gravid yet and we need them to be. So about Monday afternoon we’re going to be putting some males and females together to hopefully get some eggs laid.”
Most businesses, stores and restaurants were closed today in Savannah. But scented smoke filled the air early this morning at Tricks Barbecue.
“We were here and we really were waiting till the end to see,” said Maureen Walker, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Ricky, who also goes by "Tricks." “We felt like once we saw they were saying that it started to shift west, we were thinking, you know what - we’re gonna stay put and see what happens. So we’re normally open on Saturdays anyway. We were here and so we just continued to open… We sold out of everything. We have nothing left.”
“I can’t even count the people who were here today,” she said. “But in my conversations with some of them probably 70 percent of them were staying. We had some that were leaving. But for the most part a lot of people were just going to stay and hunker down and try to ride it out.”
Tommy and Dottie Daniels will ride it out with their German Shepherd, Rudy. The Savannah natives grew up in the neighborhood where they now live. It’s in Zone A – the area of Chatham County that’s most prone to storm surge flooding, but Daniels says that’s not the water that worries him.
“The problem that we have is when we have severe rainfall the city’s storm sewer system,” he said. “Now if you go down here to where the street drops down to its lowest level before it starts back up, the water runs right up to that man’s front door because the storm sewers back up. It can’t evacuate the rainwater quick enough. So that’s our biggest concern any time we have heavy rain or a storm like we’re supposed to get coming through here with Irma.”
Daniels says when you live in Savannah long enough, you get acclimated to weathering a big storm every few years. He says the giant trees that shade the neighborhood are probably the biggest threat to their home, “So yeah you worry about that, but you know you worry in one hand and wish in the other and see which one fills up first or something like that…”
They’ll be among the people worrying, wishing and waiting to see what Irma brings to Savannah.