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Tropical Storm Irma kills at least 2 in Georgia

Last Updated Sep 11, 2017 5:00 PM EDT

ATLANTA -- Tropical Storm Irma killed two people in Georgia as storm surge and rain flooded coastal communities Monday, winds sent trees crashing onto homes and the world's busiest airport in Atlanta canceled hundreds of flights as the storm's punch was felt statewide despite its weakened status as a tropical storm.

One storm-related death had been confirmed in rural Worth County, Georgia Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Catherine Howden said Monday afternoon, The Associated Press reported. She had no further details. The storm fatality occurred in southwest Georgia, where Irma's center crossed over from Florida on Monday afternoon. Tropical storm winds reached more than 400 miles from its center, giving its powerful gusts and drenching rains a far reach.  

Howden said the second death in Georgia related to Irma was confirmed Monday in Sandy Springs, north of Atlanta.

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 inland from either the Atlantic or Gulf coasts -- was under a tropical storm warning for the first time.

Four other deaths were reported in Florida. According to the Orange County fire chief, one person died in a single vehicle accident. Florida Highway Patrol officers say it's too early to determine whether or not the fatality was weather related. Two law enforcement officers -- Sheriff Julie Bridges and an employee of the Florida Department of Corrections -- died while driving home from a shelter, according to the Hardee County Sheriff's Office. A man died in Monroe County when his vehicle hit a tree, according to the Monroe County Sheriff's Office.

Authorities have not yet determined whether the deaths were a direct result of Irma.

Storm surge and rainfall arriving at high tide Monday afternoon swamped communities along Georgia's 100-mile 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 trees that fell 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 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, 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.