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Georgia facing possible brush with Irene from offshore

Tourists are enjoying the beaches up and down the east coast ahead of a possible landfall from Hurricane Irene later in the week.

Tourists are enjoying the beaches up and down the east coast ahead of a possible landfall from Hurricane Irene later in the week.

SAVANNAH — Tybee Island braced for dangerous rip currents along the beach, Jekyll Island prepared to protect its historic chapel's stained glass and several high school football games in Savannah got rescheduled as forecasters Tuesday warned that Hurricane Irene could brush the Georgia coast with powerful winds even if it passes far offshore.

The National Hurricane Center predicted that Irene most likely will bypass Georgia's 100-mile coastline on a path toward North Carolina. But the center's director, Bill Read, noted the storm is packing tropical storm force winds — of 39 to 73 mph — at distances up to 200 miles from its center.

"If you're on the coast of Georgia, there could be some impact from the wind and heavy surf," said Crystal Paulk-Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. "The beaches could take a pounding."

Georgia hasn't suffered a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1893. The last time coastal residents here had to evacuate ahead of a storm was in 1999 during a near-miss with Hurricane Floyd, which made landfall in North Carolina.

With Irene, local emergency officials said they were heeding the Hurricane Center's warnings that the storm's forecasted track could change in the coming days.

"Right now it's so far out, a few degrees of wobble can mean several hundred miles of change," said Mark Crews, emergency management director for Camden County in Georgia's southeast corner.

Still, Crews said he mostly expects Irene to bring winds strong enough to snap tree limbs and power lines, and perhaps deliver enough rain to cause localized flooding, but anticipates little other damage. He said the county could start feeling the storm's outermost winds as soon as Thursday.

On Tybee Island, 18 miles east of Savannah, officials planned to be on the lookout for fierce rip currents and heavy surf from Irene. Mayor Jason Buelterman said it was possible lifeguards might close the water to swimmers and surfers.

Jimmy Brown, Tybee's emergency management director, said the city was also preparing to remove trash cans, picnic tables and other items from the beach that might become hazards if they were picked up and tossed by strong winds.

"Some people have asked about sand bagging or if they should board up their homes," Brown said. "We tell them, by all means, if that makes them feel better. We're not at this time boarding up any city buildings."

Jekyll Island resident Tice Eyler, a retired Navy captain, was keeping a close eye on hurricane forecasts Tuesday but said he didn't plan to evacuate unless Irene appeared to change course.

Eyler said he and his wife have evacuated Jekyll Island ahead of storms at least three times in the 25 years they've lived on the Georgia coast. They keep insurance papers, financial statements and other important documents packed and ready in case they have to flee in a hurry.

"Within 5 minutes we can put them in the car and get out of here," Eyler said. "We kind of live by that and we don't wait until the last minute."

Jekyll Island, about 60 miles south of Savannah, was a getaway for some of America's wealthiest industrialists in the late 1800s. Its vacation homes built by the likes of William Rockefeller, who called the sprawling dwellings "cottages,"and the island's19th century chapel with its original stained glass windows are prized treasures of the Georgia coast's past.

Eric Garvey, spokesman for the Jekyll Island Authority, said the island's caretakers were still watching forecasts to decide what steps needed to be taken to protect those historic buildings.

"Right now it looks unlikely that we'll board up the historic cottages," Garvey said. "But we would go ahead and board up the stained glass windows because we would never take any chances."

Hurricane Irene also threatened to disrupt the first week of school on Georgia's coast.

Kurt Hetager, spokesman for Savannah-Chatham County schools, said people were asking during the first day of classes Monday if school would be canceled later in the week.

Several high-school football games were moved up from Friday night to Thursday to ensure Irene didn't force any to be canceled, Hetager said. But students hoping for an early weekend might get disappointed.

"At this time it's business as usual," Hetager said. "We're planning for schools to be open with no disruption."