VALDOSTA -- As Hurricane Frances approaches land, Lowndes County officials declared a state of emergency Thursday.

By declaring a state of emergency, Lowndes County and its cities -- Valdosta, Hahira, Lake Park, Remerton and Dasher -- have declared they will not tolerate price gouging. The area also is eligible for disaster aid funding if needed.

At an emergency management meeting Thursday, Lowndes County Board of Commissioners Chairman Rod Casey signed a state of emergency declaration.

"One of our jobs as neighbors is to help others," Casey said. "By signing this, we are doing the right thing. This will prevent price gouging, which is wrong to do to people in need. We are prepared for the storm, and ready to help others."

Valdosta Mayor John Fretti echoed Casey's sentiments.

"We are one team," Fretti said. "Storms are always unpredictable, and we are staying ever vigilant. We got practice with (Hurricane) Charley, and now we know what must be done."

Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered a pre-emptive state of emergency throughout the state.

Nick Lacey, director of the Lowndes County 911/Emergency Management Center, conducted the meeting. Lacey reported that hotels and motels were full, and shelters needed to be opened as soon as they could be ready.

Penelope White, executive director of the American Red Cross Valdosta Chapter, said three could be open by 2 p.m. today and one saved for Sunday, for area residents.

"We want evacuees to know they have a place to go, but we must also look out for the well being of our own citizens," Lacey said.

White said citizens who want to help should call the American Red Cross at 242--7404. White said office workers were needed for paperwork, filing and coping purposes during the weekend. Volunteers for shelters are not needed at this time.

Officials from Lowndes cities stated "good Samaritan" shelters were being opened for evacuees as well. For special needs citizens, South Georgia Medical Center will provide shelter.

Police, fire and emergency medical departments are doubling shifts and adding crews to prepare for potential medical emergencies and road hazards. Valdosta City Manager Larry Hanson also said that city departments were preparing as well, getting generators out and tested, making sure equipment was in working order and having plans to keep Valdosta safe.

Lowndes County departments are also on hand for emergencies and going through some of the same procedures.

Volunteer organizations are also pitching in. The Salvation Army is on hand, and Second Harvest Food Bank is preparing and storing food and water for an emergency. 211 has offered the use of its phone bank for volunteers, so citizens may call for information. White said volunteers were needed to man the phones, and may call 211 to volunteer.

Lacey also said the emergency management center was ready for the hurricane. Shifts have been added, and communication devices have been checked.

"We're ready," Lacey said. "We learned a lot from Charley, and it's time to put what we learned into action. Hopefully, this is just another practice run."

Lacey said Frances is expected to hit the Lowndes County area Sunday evening, with rains continuing into Monday. Lowndes is expected to see anywhere between five to eight inches of rain and up to 40 mile per hour winds. Lacey said Frances is moving westward, but slowing down. The National Weather Service said Thursday night that Frances might be weakening as it hits the Bahamas on its travel toward coastal Florida.

Frances is a Category 4 hurricane. There are five categories, with five being the worst. Charley, which hit in late August, was also a Category 4, but after hitting land, quickly downgraded to a Category 1.

To contact reporter Michelle Taylor, please call 229-244-3400, ext. 245.

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