FORSYTH, GA -- At a hotel parking lot just north of Macon, the Florida tags were abundant and so were the woeful exit stories of the people who drove there.
"Even if nothing happens, just the thought of looting and people being crazy, it’s just better – it’s just better to go," said John Pond, who was caravaning to Cumming with his wife and four children and two dogs. Pond's father lives there.
The Pond family abruptly bailed out of Ft Lauderdale Wednesday, and landed in middle Georgia in a drive that took twice as long as is typical.
"Florida was in a panic. Everyone was trying to get gas. Pumps were shut down. There was lines out into the main road," said Allan Kalisz. He loaded his two dogs and fiancée into his truck Wednesday night. The seven hour trip to middle Georgia took 14 hours up I-75, parts of which stayed clogged much of the day heading north.
"Our plan was to plan like we weren’t going to go home to a home. So we took pictures, insurance, serial numbers, made sure to contact them, make sure our policy was all good," said Kalisz, who was headed for a relative's house in Maggie Valley NC. "All our kind of important stuff, clothes for about a week, and pictures of everything else. Everything else stayed behind."
Governor Nathan Deal expanded the state of emergency, ordered a mandatory evacuation and will alter one of the state’s main highways to accommodate residents fleeing the Georgia coast.
I-16 will be the main evacuation route. Starting Saturday, some of the red and white gates built on the exit ramps will be lowered to block traffic going toward Savannah in order to accommodate traffic coming from Savannah.
"I live on the coast, so I’m trying to get inland," said Joe Howard, who stopped in Dublin to get gas and wash the bugs from the grill of his Cadillac. He aimed to beat the traffic out of his hometown of Brunswick. He's headed for a relative's house in McDonough.
"We’re retired so there wasn’t no need for us to wait. And come down in all the traffic so. Here we are now," said Howard.
He was among the motorists clogging I-16, the main highway connecting Savannah and Macon. To ease traffic, the state will lower guard rails on its eastbound ramps, disallowing eastbound traffic, in a process called “contraflow.” Traffic heading west on I-16 out of Savannah will take the two westbound lanes. The contraflow will be allow some of that traffic to cross over into the empty eastbound lanes – creating four lanes of evacuation traffic out of Savannah, and doubling I-16’s westbound capacity.
"You know that when we’re having to contraflow I-16, and the governor is calling for mandatory evacuation, we’re taking this storm very seriously. We want to make sure all of the Georigans are safe," said Natalie Dale, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation.