Although many forecast models show Hurricane Irma’s path drifting more to the western half of the state than previously predicted, local officials say now is not the time to let your guard down.
As the storm continued its slow approach toward Florida’s southern shores Friday afternoon, St. Johns County officials gathered to discuss potential impacts, the evacuation of the county’s low-lying areas, and the likelihood of curfews, bridge closures and water disruptions.
County Administrator Michael Wanchick said the latest projections still indicate Irma is a “very serious storm that poses significant threats” to the area.
“I am very concerned that our residents are projecting Hurricane Matthew onto Hurricane Irma,” he said, cautioning residents against underestimating the storm’s intensity or assuming they know what path it will take.
Sheriff David Shoar couldn’t say when exactly residents can expect any of those measures or others to be put in place but said determinations will be based on factors such as weather conditions on the ground and maintaining the safety of emergency personnel stationed in high-risk areas. He estimated it won’t be until late Sunday to early Monday that those decisions start getting made.
Wanchick said utility services will be kept on for as long as possible but said residents on the barrier islands should expect shut-offs in order to protect the systems and the crews manning them, if or when the storm intensifies. He also announced a curfew for St. Augustine, St. Augustine Beach and the barrier islands will go into effect 8 p.m. Sunday on into 6 a.m. Monday, adding the curfew would remain in effect for the evening hours until canceled.
Wanchick and Shoar said people will be able to go back and forth over the bridges, even after the mandatory evacuation order goes into effect, until the county starts experiencing sustained tropical storm winds, at which point it’s a judgment call made collectively by personnel on the bridges. They said all the bridges will close at once and they will not re-open for re-entry until an official determination has been made they’re safe to cross.
Wanchick said the projections for Irma’s path and intensity are changing with each briefing and even the slightest shifts can make a big difference one way or the other. He and Shoar said even professional meteorologists don’t know what’s going to happen and where.
Shoar said it’s more difficult to power up than it is to power down once the storm hits and that local government, therefore, operates under the worst case scenario assumption.
“Anything less than that is a blessing,” he said.
The county on Thursday announced a mandatory evacuation order to go into effect 6 a.m. Saturday for Evacuation Zones A and B, including the all of the City of St. Augustine and the Town of Hastings. Residents living in boats, RVs, and mobile homes throughout St. Johns County are also included in the evacuation order.
Officials said that order will not be lifted despite the changing forecasts and encouraged residents who are able to evacuate to do so as soon as possible in order to avoid traffic congestion.
The county is opening at least five shelters at 6 a.m. Saturday and is prepared to open additional shelters as needed.
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).
In response to a request from the state’s emergency operations center, St. Johns County is opening a general population shelter at Mill Creek Elementary School, 3750 International Golf Parkway, St. Augustine, as of 7 p.m. Friday to accommodate those who have been evacuated from South Florida and are traveling north on major thoroughfares. For more information, call the St. Johns County Emergency Operations hotline at 904-824-5550.
Go to www.sjcfl.us/hurricane to find your evacuation zone designation and routes, shelter information as well as other storm-related updates from the county.