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Coastal homes flood, flights canceled as Irma whacks Georgia

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Jonathan Landrum Jr. and Russ Bynum, Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) -- Storm surge and rain flooded coastal communities, winds sent trees crashing onto inland homes and the world's busiest airport in Atlanta canceled hundreds of flights as Irma's punch was felt across Georgia despite its weakened status as a tropical storm.

The city of Savannah, on Georgia's coast, was evacuated for the second time in less than a year because of the storm, and the National Weather Service in Peachtree City confirmed that Atlanta -- more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) inland from either the Atlantic or Gulf coasts -- was under a tropical storm warning for the first time.

As Irma's eyewall crossed into southwest Georgia from Florida on Monday afternoon, it still packed tropical storm winds more than 400 miles (644 kilometers) from its center, giving its powerful gusts and drenching rains a far reach.

Storm surge and rainfall arriving at high tide Monday afternoon swamped communities along Georgia's 100-mile (160-kilometer) coast. On Tybee Island east of Savannah, Holland Zellers was heading home to grab a kayak so he could reach a home where his mother had taken shelter near the beach.

Shawn Gillen, Tybee Island's city manager, said waters appeared to be receding quickly but the flooding was extensive on the island of more than 3,000 residents.

"There's a lot of homes that have water in the them right now," Gillen said.

The tidal surge also sent water and damaged boats rushing ashore for more than three blocks into downtown St. Marys just north of the Georgia-Florida state line, said St. Marys police Lt. Shannon Brock. Brock said no injuries had been reported.

Almost all of Georgia was under a tropical storm warning.

A similar warning covered parts of South Carolina and most of eastern Alabama, where schools and businesses were closed Monday. Alabama Emergency Management Agency meteorologist Jim Stefcovich said strong winds could linger in the state until 2 a.m. Tuesday.

About 800 flights had been canceled at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which remained operational Monday as its staff monitored storm conditions with help from the Federal Aviation Administration, airport spokesman Andrew Gobeil said.

By Monday afternoon, more than 800,000 Georgia Power and EMC customers mostly in coastal and south Georgia were without power. Alabama Power said there were 12,000 outages mostly in the southeastern area of the state.

In Atlanta, falling trees and limbs may pose the most significant threat to life and property.

Amy Phuong, parks and recreation commissioner for the city, says six crews already were handling calls for felled trees around the city Monday afternoon, as winds and rain began to intensify.

Phuong says the crews expect to stay busy as Irma passes over the area and in the storm's aftermath.

About half the city's land area is covered by trees -- a larger share than most urban centers

Georgia's coast was largely empty after evacuations were ordered for the second time in less than year. The coast's nearly 540,000 residents fled last October ahead of Hurricane Matthew, which caused an estimated $500 million in damage and killed three people.

The National Weather Service said flooding rains were a major concern Monday, with 8 to 15 inches (20 to 38 centimeters) of rainfall predicted in southeast Georgia. Downtown Savannah saw winds Monday strong enough to make palm trees bend and sway.

Further inland in Lowndes County near the Georgia-Florida line, firefighters rescued occupants of a few homes struck by falling trees, said county spokeswoman Paige Dukes. No serious injuries were reported. With wind gusts reaching 70 mph (112 kph), officials ordered a daytime curfew for the 112,000 residents of Lowndes County, which includes Valdosta.

Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority suspended all bus and rail services Monday and would decide later whether to resume operations Tuesday, spokesman Erik Burton said.

Georgia Power spokeswoman Holly Crawford said Monday the areas with the most power outages were coastal Glynn and Chatham counties. She says the utility company had about 3,400 employees on standby to respond, but cautioned repairs could take several days.

FEATURED PHOTO: Savannah fine art photographer Dan Kaufman stops in the middle of nearly deserted downtown Savannah, Ga., Sunday, Sept., 10, 2017 to take a photo of City Hall before winds from the outer bands of Hurricane Irma are forecast to impact the area. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)