PINELLAS COUNTY - Gary Vickers, director of Pinellas County's Emergency Management, urged residents in evacuation areas planning to leave the area to leave now.
Speaking in a press conference just before 4 p.m., Vickers urged residents to take the evacuation order seriously and reported that traffic was already beginning to back up into Hillsborough County.
"If you plan to evacuate and you plan to leave the area, leave early," Vickers said. "Don't wait until 6 p.m."
The Pinellas County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously today to issue a Level C Mandatory Evacuation order for the county. Vickers said the orders covers residents of the barrier islands and those determined by the National Weather Service to be in low lying areas vulnerable to storm surge from a Category 3 hurricane. People living in mobile homes are also required to evacuate.
Charley was upgraded to a Category 2 hurricane around 2 p.m. and could build to a Category 3 with winds in excess of 110 mph by time it hits land. Charley is predicted to make land around 8 p.m. Friday. Pinellas County is directly in its path, as projected at 5 p.m.
Just before 5 p.m., the National Weather Service included Pinellas County in the latest hurricane warning area. Newest predictions call for Charley to be upgraded and near Fort Myers by 2 p.m. tomorrow. The storm should impact land in Tampa Bay by as early as 5 p.m.
Emergency workers have given themselves until 2 p.m. tomorrow to get 380,000 residents moved to safety. This will be the largest evacuation in the county's history, and officials are urging people to work with them and begin moving to safety early.
"Act early," Vickers said. "Don't wait until conditions look bad."
Vickers added words of incentive to residents still deciding whether they would leave their homes or not.
"You're betting with your life that emergency management personnel and county officials are wrong," he said. "We are urging residents to not take that gamble. You staying in your home will not save your property from storm surge."
Storm surge is the reason residents have been ordered to evacuate, Vickers explained. He said people in non-evacuation zones should be able to weather the storm even with the high winds if they have a safe room. Vickers said residents should find a room in their house with no windows where they can ride out the storm.
Residents with animals are urged to not turn pets loose. Vickers advised calling the county's animal services at 582-2600 for help. He also suggested using the yellow pages to find numbers of kennels in non-evacuation areas.
Boat owners are advised to contact the boat master at the marina where their boat is located for specific mooring and other requirements. He said boat owners should be aware that the drawbridge access would be limited to get the people off the islands.
Vickers said the county was ramping up its operations. He said the Emergency Center was fully activated. He said the phone center would be updated with 32 operators by this evening. Phone lines have been busy all day and, he said, people had been receiving busy signals.
The county's Web site was all but shut down earlier today as it received heavy traffic from people trying to find out their evacuation levels. Vickers reported that a software upgrade had remedied that situation and that residents should be able to use that service again.
Riding out the storm
Vickers gave advice to people who plan to remain for the storm, especially those who have purchased gas-powered generators. He said people should not run the generators inside because of the build up of carbon monoxide a gas that can kill. He also cautioned residents against plugging into their existing electrical system as their actions could endanger anyone working on the public electrical system.
"Don't tie into your house electrical system," he said. "Run off the generator's extension cord only."
Vickers urged those determined to remain in their homes to find a safe room and take some stops to shutter their windows and reinforce garage doors. He said little could be done to protect against storm surge.
Vickers said law enforcement personnel would not be arresting people who refused to leave. He said they would be taking next of kin information so they would know who to contact "when we come back and you're gone."
Rain totals of 3 to 6 inches are expected; along with a storm surge of 8 to 14 feet and winds as high as 110 mph. Officials are now calling this the biggest storm to hit the county in more than 50 years.
Residents are urged to stay informed for the latest information. TBNWeekly.com will continue to update our stories as details become available.
All county schools and offices will be closed tomorrow. Residents are advised to check before heading out to any destinations tomorrow and many area businesses will be closed.