Families pack belongings onto a bus to evacuate.

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The buses serve those without transportation

More than 2,100 people have sought refuge in 23 shelters statewide

CNN —  

Loads of Georgia residents filed onto buses early Friday, clutching pillows and bags as they sought shelter from Hurricane Matthew’s pending deluge. Some left everything behind.

By 9 a.m. Friday, about 200 to 250 people had boarded the buses at the Savannah Civic Center bound for seven American Red Cross shelters in Augusta, Georgia, including several at local high schools.

“If it wasn’t for our child, we probably would try to ride it out but … we have our little one,” Krystal Cooper, 26, of Savannah, told CNN as Joris Cooper held their 1-year-old son, Siroj. “We can’t just think about us. We have to think about our family as a whole.”

The Coopers grabbed what they could, stacking up diapers, baby food, blankets and pillows. But they said they were worried about their elderly parents, Savannah natives who decided to hunker during the hurricane.

While thousands of evacuees piled into cars to leave coastal communities expected to be hit hard, many of the most vulnerable residents, including the elderly, poor and working poor with meager means escaped the Savannah area on buses, like the one the Coopers boarded.

Evacuating by bus

Savannah and Chatham County officials said they provided the charter buses and school buses for low-income residents, the elderly and others without transportation through a joint effort that included the Chatham Emergency Management Agency, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and bus companies.

Officials said they called elderly residents to make sure they had an evacuation plan and offered the buses.

Eager to get out of the storm’s way, a handful of evacuees spent Thursday night on the buses, two Savannah police officers told CNN.

Special buses with handicap access were also on hand Friday for those in wheelchairs.

Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach said Friday he was pleased with the results of the bus plan.

“We can’t say enough,” he said at a morning news conference. “We’ve had about 2,000 people who were bused to other areas.”

But DeLoach stressed that the bus transportation was being shut down by noon Friday.

“The time is now to get out of the city of Savannah,” he said.

Statewide, nearly 3,500 people so far had sought refuge in 23 American Red Cross shelters, including many who were bused from Savannah, said Divina Mims Puckett, an American Red Cross of Georgia spokeswoman.

‘This is serious’

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures that flooded more than 80 percent of New Orleans impacted the city’s low-income and working poor, who didn’t have the means to leave.

“In New Orleans, the people who did not have the discretionary income to leave or return on their own were often the most burdened by the evacuation. They were stuck. They had to seek a shelter of last resort,” said Andre Perry, a consultant with The Data Center in New Orleans, which gathers and analyzes data about issues affecting Southeast Louisiana.

More than 10,000 people ended up at the Superdome after Katrina.

At least 1,833 people died in Katrina and subsequent floods, including 1,577 in Louisiana alone, according to figures from Federal Emergency Management Agency. More than 40 percent of those deaths were caused by drowning, 25 percent were caused by injury and trauma and 11 percent caused by heart conditions, according to figures from FEMA and The Data Center.

As Matthew headed toward the coastal regions on Friday, a state of emergency was already in place for North Carolina and Florida, and in 30 counties near the coast in Georgia.

In Florida, more than 22,000 people had sought refuge in more than 145 shelters, Gov. Rick Scott said early Friday.

In Savannah, police drove through the streets, using loudspeakers to tell residents about the mandatory evacuation over the past two days.

But again Friday, Savannah Alderman Van Johnson issued another appeal. He said a significant number of people still had not left the area.

“This is serious,” Johnson said. “We are living in a historic moment. Please don’t become a part of it.”

‘Between a rock and a hard place’

Perry, who studies poverty, said that in many cases, the low-income and working poor who live from paycheck to paycheck don’t have cars and neither does anyone in their network. So, they depend on rides from others or on public transportation to get them out of harm’s way during a storm, he said.

Many times, they hunker down and ride out the storm, he said.

“Often times, the cost of an evacuation is rent. It’s your electric bill,” Perry said. “So, poor people are really faced (with) the dilemma of, if I go, I may save my life. But if I go and return, I may live a poorer quality of life than I’ve lived before. So, evacuations really put poor people between a rock and a hard place.”

In Savannah, Krystal Cooper said she couldn’t reach her mother and wished her mother would leave. “I really, really want you to leave just to make sure you’re safe,” she said, choking up.

Joris Cooper said: “Daddy, if you’re out there, leave.”

Krystal Cooper said she was nervous for their parents’ safety.

“But I have to put it in God’s hands and just continue to pray,” she said.