As the first ominous hints of Hurricane Irma could be observed in South Florida Saturday afternoon, St. Johns County officials reiterated the need for residents in evacuation zones to get out and to not make any assumptions about the storm’s path or intensity.
County Administrator Michael Wanchick said although the most recent forecasts appear to be bending in favor to St. Johns County, he said Irma was still “a very dangerous storm” and that its track is uncertain.
“This is not a time for our community to let its guard down,” he said, adding there will be dangerous conditions before, during and after the storm.
Sheriff David Shoar also cautioned against predicting what the storm is going to do. He said two days before he had sheriffs on the west coast calling him offering help and just 48 hours later he was making the same offer to them.
“The truth changes hourly with these weather event,” he said. “… We can be good today, bad tomorrow or bad today and good tomorrow.”
Officials said the bridges will remain open for vehicular, pedestrian and bike traffic, back and forth, until such time as sustained tropical force winds arrive in the area. At that point, law enforcement personnel stationed at the bridges will make the determination when they are no longer safe for vehicular access.
Shoar said his best estimate would be late Sunday evening or early Monday morning for that determination to be made.
In the event the bridges are closed due to high winds or other adverse conditions such as storm surge or erosion, they will re-open after an inspection of the bridges by the Florida Department of Transportation and an official determination the barrier islands are safe for re-entry to anyone.
As of Saturday afternoon there were no plans to cease water and sewer service for the majority of the county. Officials have said such services to the barrier islands will remain on until the integrity of the system is threatened or it is determined unsafe to allow staff to remain on the islands to keep those systems operating.
The county says although residents can expect weather-related power outages, there are no plans for curtailing of this service to any portions of the county, at least by local agencies.
There will be a curfew in effect 8 p.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. Monday for St. Augustine Beach, St. Augustine and portions of the county lying east of the Intracoastal Waterway on the barrier islands. The curfew will remain in effect nightly until further notice.
“We don’t need any people in the streets,” Shoar said, adding the curfew is meant to confine residents only to their property, not just the inside of their homes.
Responding to questions from residents about why the mandatory evacuation order was still in effect even when forecasts were pushing the storm to the west, the county, in a Facebook post on Saturday, said Irma is 400 miles wide and the peninsula of Florida is less than 200 miles wide.
“St. Johns County remains in the three day Cone of Uncertainty with the 400 mile wide storm moving across our area as a Category One hurricane,” the post said. “The most dangerous side of the storm (the right side) is expected to pass near or over us with strong, damaging winds, an increased risk of tornadoes, 8-15 inches of rain, up to 3 feet of storm surge along oceans and rivers, and surf of 5-10 feet.”
The county is under a hurricane warning and a storm surge watch with hurricane force winds expected by late Sunday.
Here’s a summary of what agencies are doing to prepare:
· Fire Rescue is bringing in additional personnel to staff fire engines, rescues and special storm response units. Additionally, the Florida National Guard is sending six high-water vehicles to get rescuers through flooded areas.
· The Sheriff’s Office has augmented patrols in all evacuation zones and has extra deputies assigned to traffic control and other tasks associated with evacuation. There are also deputies posted at every county hurricane evacuation shelter.
· The St. Augustine Fire Department, Police Department and the St. Augustine Beach Police Department all have extra personnel on duty to respond to local emergencies.
· The Department of Transportation ceased drawbridge operations for marine traffic at the Bridge of Lions and the State Road 206 Bridge. The drawbridges will no longer open for marine vessels that are too tall to pass beneath the spans.
For more information, call the St. Johns County Emergency Management hotline at 904-824-5550 or go to www.sjcfl.us/hurricane.