SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - Great uncertainty remained Friday about Hurricane Irma's path beyond Florida with forecasts showing potential storm impacts from portions of the Carolinas and Alabama as well as the entirety of Georgia, a state that's become an escape route for hundreds of thousands of evacuees.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal noted Irma's unpredictability at a news conference in Atlanta Friday after the National Hurricane Center nudged the storm's predicted track significantly westward. Regardless, Deal stuck by his evacuation order issued a day earlier for Georgia's nearly 540,000 coastal residents to leave beginning Saturday morning.
"This is a rapidly moving hurricane and the weather and the consequences of that hurricane can change dramatically within a short period of time," Deal said. He did not immediately call for any evacuations beyond Georgia's coast, but urged coastal residents: "Help us help you. Don't take chances."
The official forecast track Friday afternoon showed Irma churning up the Florida peninsula over the weekend before crossing the Georgia-Florida line Monday far inland from the coast.
But forecasters built in substantial room for error, saying Irma could rake Florida's east coast on a northward path over the Atlantic Ocean toward Savannah at the Georgia-South Carolina line. Or the storm could veer further west and cross the Florida Panhandle into Alabama.
On Tybee Island east of Savannah, Ernie Laessig wasn't taking any chances with Irma. Laessig and his wife rode out Hurricane Matthew as it brushed coastal Georgia last October. But they fear Irma could prove more dangerous.
"Well it is changing hour by hour, minute by minute," Laessig said as he prepared to leave Friday for Athens, Georgia, 234 miles (376 kilometers) northwest. "But the longer you wait you could be stuck here and it could change again for the worse. So I'm sticking with my final decision and we're out of here."
An eastward shift in Irma's track could bring up to 12 feet of storm surge to portions of coastal Georgia, where the resulting wall of water could become even larger if the storm arrived at high tide, the National Weather Service said. Southeast Georgia could get 10 to 12 inches or rain.
If Irma sticks to a more westward inland path, it could arrive in Georgia as a weakened tropical storm. But more inland communities could see heavy winds and rain along with an elevated risk of tornadoes.
Many Florida evacuees using Interstate 75 are streaming into Lowndes County at the Georgia-Florida line. It's also about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the coast. County spokeswoman Paige Dukes said Friday local officials are now concerned they could see a "direct hit" from Irma.
"Now we're looking at hurricane-force winds in excess of 79 mph," Dukes said. "We have a significant amount of mobile homes in our community and all of our RV parks are full. That's what a lot of people who evacuated are using for shelter."
Associated Press reporter Johnny Clark on Tybee Island, Georgia, contributed to this report.