St. Johns County officials gathered Thursday afternoon at the Emergency Operations Center to discuss the potential impacts of Hurricane Irma, and outline at least a tentative game plan for preparation and response.
Commission Chair Jimmy Johns said the latest information coming out of the National Weather Service indicated a “heightened threat” to the county from the Category 5 storm. He warned of higher winds, higher storm surge and more flooding than was experienced with Hurricane Matthew.
While Matthew may be the freshest memory, officials quickly graduated from drawing comparisons to last October’s storm, invoking more destructive storms like Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
“This storm is unlike anything Florida has experienced in recent memory,” Johns said. “Its potential impact cannot be underestimated. We recommend that all residents take action to be prepared now.”
Sheriff David Shoar said Irma’s intensity is equivalent to or greater than Andrew’s, adding the only way to describe the aftermath of Andrew was “nuclear destruction.”
He said the county’s emergency management team is a well-established group with a lot of experience handling severe weather events and all that comes with them. He said while they’re collaborating with partners around the state, the fact of the matter is all Florida counties are going through the same exercises and requesting the same resources at the same time.
“This has already been a horrific event for people in the islands and it’s going to be a horrific event in the days to come,” Shoar said.
He and Johns stressed the need for patience in the coming days, particularly with an influx of evacuees from South Florida on the roads who are unfamiliar with the area, but who have similar concerns as everyone else.
Shoar said Interstate 95 is already seeing double its normal traffic. He recalled how Hurricane Floyd, in 1999, had turned the interstate essentially into a parking lot, adding they’re prepared to do anything, including blocking access into St. Johns County from the major roadways, if it gets to the point they don’t think they can manage the flow.
Officials announced the issuance of mandatory evacuation orders for Zones A and B starting at 6 a.m. Saturday, as well as the opening of at least five shelters around the county at that time.
Evacuation Zones A and B include the entire City of St. Augustine, the Town of Hastings and those living on waterfront property within the evacuation zones. Residents living in boats, RVs and mobile homes throughout St. Johns County are also included in the evacuation order.
The following shelters will be open to the public: Pacetti Bay Middle School, 245 Meadowlark Lane (special needs); Timberlin Creek Elementary School, 555 Pine Tree Lane (pet-friendly); Pedro Menendez High School, 600 State Road 206 West (general population); Bartram Trail High School, 7399 Longleaf Pine Parkway (general population); and South Woods Elementary School, 4750 State Road 206 (pet-friendly).
Johns encouraged those who are able to evacuate, but not to one of the shelters, to do so as soon as possible to avoid traffic congestion.
Shoar, citing some angst following Matthew, said those residents leaving evacuations zones have to realize they will not be allowed back in until authorities collectively deem those areas safe to re-enter. He also discouraged calling emergency dispatch to check on conditions of certain homes, roads or areas during or after the storm.
“We have to look at the larger picture, not just the individual homes,” he said, adding his office’s priority is protecting lives.
He also cautioned they will likely, eventually, have to turn off water in certain areas, especially along the coast, and institute curfews from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Johns said there was a “long list of lessons learned” from Matthew that will be applied where possible in dealing with Irma, although he said every storm is unique. One example of the changes made following Matthew is the discontinuation of the re-entry tag program that officials deemed more burdensome than necessary for the purposes of getting back into evacuation zones.
Emergency management staff earlier this week said they were operating under the assumption the storm is headed this way and were thus preparing for an impact. Nonetheless, it was too early to take certain actions with the storm still days away and the path still uncertain.
Thursday’s tune was a little different, although officials still called for calm and reminding residents it’s better to be over-prepared than not prepared at all.
In the meantime, county residents wasted no time this week, stocking up on disaster supplies such as bottled water, non-perishable foods, coolers, plywood, generators, gas cans, tarps, first-aid kits, flashlights and batteries.