UPDATE: White County likely to get worst from Irma after noon Monday
Severe weather related to Hurricane Irma is expected to worsen in White County after noon Monday, Sept. 11.
Rain is forecast to begin rolling in early Monday morning, according to a 8:30 p.m. briefing by the National Weather Service on Sunday. Irma had been downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane as of 8 p.m. and should be a large tropical storm as it enters Georgia, but it will continue bring damaging wind as moves north through the state. White County was under a Tropical Storm Warning as of Monday morning.
Along with a potential downpour of 3-5 inches of rain in a 12-18-hour period, emergency officials anticipate having power outages and downed trees here with the county in a "moderate" wind threat area. Tornados remain a threat throughout the state, but the cool, stable air mass in northern Georgia likely means very isolated chance for one in White County. (An EF-2 tornado hit Helen in 2005 as an offshoot of Hurricane Katrina.)
County public safety director David Murphy advises residents should remain indoors Monday for their own safety. If they must go out for some reason, any errand should be done early in the morning, he says.
By Monday afternoon, the NWS forecasts the county could have maximum wind gusts of 35-45 mph with bursts potentially topping 50 mph by that evening. The storm should be leaving Georgia heading into midnight, according to current projections.
At a noon weather briefing Sunday, the National Weather Service noted Irma would weaken as it moved over land along the west coast of Florida.
“Things are shaping up for our betterment, but I do not want us to take our guard down over the next 24-48 hours, as anything can change,” Murphy told a gathering of community officials.
White County schools will close Monday, Sept. 11, superintendent Dr. Jeff Wilson announced soon after the update. He cited Gov. Nathan Deal’s State of Emergency declaration for all of the state’s 159 counties earlier in the day. Truett McConnell University will close Monday in anticipation of severe weather.
Much can still change, officials cautioned, though residents should be prepared for disruptions.
Don Strength, the county’s deputy emergency management director, noted 35-45 mph gusts will still bring down trees.
"We’ve already had one transformer blow this (Sunday) morning, and we’re still a long way away from it," he said.
After Irma passes through, Murphy says people should stay away from downed power lines.
“Just because they’re not ‘jumping up and down’ on the ground doesn’t mean they’re not energized,” he says. “If they’re not energized, at some point in time they could become energized by someone switching on something on downstream, including a generator.”
Residents should report electrical outages to their provider. Murphy said E-911 would also relay any known power issues to the companies.
“We’re going to have power outages. There’s no question about that,” Murphy said. “With utility companies being stretched as far as they are, it will take some time for them to work their way around. We just need to be patient.”
Habersham EMC members can report outages or other electrical line hazards by calling 800-640-6812 or 706-754-2114 or through an online form. Georgia Power customers can call 1-888-891-0938 or visit its website.
The county’s Community Emergency Response Team will be on standby to help with traffic direction or even the removal of trees by chainsaw.
Murphy encourages people to have a NOAA weather radio handy and to sign up for Code Red alerts. You can sign up by going to www.whitecounty.net/public-safety/emergency-management and clicking on the red square that says “Register for Emergency Alerts.”
At a Friday briefing, Sheriff Neal Walden said people should be careful of scam artists that follow on the heels of disasters. He also said said the sheriff’s office will not tolerate “gawkers” – people who want to drive around just to look at damage as emergency crews try to address the situation.
'Safe haven' shelters remain on standby, if needed
Murphy said three safe-haven shelters have been designated for people who live in sub-standard housing, mobile homes or RVs who may feel threatened due to the weather conditions. These facilities are for local residents, not for travelers who arrive here after evacuating from other areas.
The safe havens, however, will be opened if warnings indicate severe weather, tornadoes or damaging winds, if the Storm Predictions Center issues a Tornado Watch for White County, or if local officials determine they are necessary. The safe havens are:
• Friendship Baptist Church, 3513 Westmoreland Road, Cleveland; 706-865-0722 (southern White County)
• The White County Emergency Operations Center, 1241 Helen Highway, Cleveland, 706-865-9500 (central White County)
• Mt. Yonah Elementary School, 1161 Duncan Bridge Road, Sautee Nacoochee, 706-865-3514 (northern White County)
For information about the safe havens, call the Emergency Operations Center, 706-865-9500, or the 24-hour dispatch center, 706-865-0911. Murphy said people should bring the following items with them to a safe-haven shelter with them: snacks for themselves and family; medications; activities for kids and adults; and any immediate essentials the family may need.
As far as having an emergency shelter, Murphy said one would only be activated in the event of widespread damage from a tornado or other disaster, or if requested by the Red Cross.
Officials urge caution over gas panic
Some gas stations in White County temporarily ran out of gas Saturday as drivers prepared for Hurricane Irma – and a potential gas shortage.
Gasoline may become scarce, with evacuees from Florida and South Georgia coming to North Georgia. Emergency vehicles will need that gasoline should the county experience flash flooding or high winds.
“Don’t panic and top off – that adds to the shortage,” said Cleveland Police Chief John Foster at Friday's weather meeting. “As far as I know, Colonial (gas pipeline) is still open and flowing.”