PINELLAS COUNTY - The 11 p.m. update from the National Weather Service's Hurricane Center didn't bring much hope to residents hoping to escape the brunt of the force of hurricane Charley.
Steve Spratt, county administrator, updated residents on the latest news at 11:15 p.m. and said that the newest information showed no significant change in the storm's track or strength. Forecasters say Charley seems to be aiming straight for the mouth of Tampa Bay.
Spratt and weather forecasters say the final track of Charley as it approaches land will make all the difference in storm surge, predicted to be anywhere from 10 to 15 feet above sea level, and are watching it closely.
The Category 2 storm was threatening Cuba at 11 p.m. and predicted to hit "on top of Pinellas County" as early as 5 p.m. tomorrow. Residents should be prepared to start seeing evidence of the storm as early as 2 p.m. tomorrow.
Unless Charley makes a big move in direction, the storm should arrive in this area as a Category 3 bringing with it winds possibly as high as 125 mph, 4 to 8 inches or rain, storm surges up to 15 feet and tornados.
The 11 p.m. update of emergency preparations didn't add much to the 8:30 report by Gary Vickers, director of the county's Emergency Management department.
At that time Vickers said that the area had been experiencing a very high volume of cellular phone traffic and requested that people try to limit the number of call they make.
Vickers said it was important that the cellular airways stay available for emergency workers who are still implementing hurricane emergency plans.
Vickers also strongly reminded residents that 911 calls should be not be used except for police, fire or medical emergencies. He said people wanting help with evacuations or information about the hurricane should call the county's Citizens Information Center at 464-3800. He admitted that people calling that number might have to call more than once as the phone lines were still experiencing high traffic.
Vickers pointed out that the last time the county experienced a major hurricane was in 1921 when a Category 2 storm hit.
"The population was considerably less then," he said.
Vickers said Charley would prove to be a test of the emergency plans the county had been putting in place since the 1921 storm.
"At no time since (1921) have we been confronted with this situation," he said. "We're going to be testing our plans. We'll be learning new lessons."
Vickers said he had been in contact with all the municipalities in the county and all were reporting they were doing well.
He said all the county's shelters were open and preparations were being made to open at least two more. As of 8:30 p.m., he reported that no more than 50 to 60 people were at any one shelter. He said more were expected to arrive tomorrow.
Spratt reported that as of 10:30 p.m., 1,600 residents were counted in county shelters.
Vickers said 40,000 sand bags had been distributed thus far and the county still had 70,000 left. He said people coming for sand bags should remember that using sand bags was hard, physical work. He also reminded people they had to bring their own shovels to fill the bags.
All 40 units in service by Sun Star ambulances are out making evacuation calls, Vickers said. Spratt said thus far the ambulance evacuations were on schedule.
All in all, Vickers said, preparations for Charley were going well. He urged residents to continue to keep up-to-date with the latest information. He also urged those who were in evacuation zones A, B or C to finish preparations to leave as soon as possible.
Vickers said area bridges would be closed as soon as winds reached tropical force strength or 40 mph. Predictions say that will be about 2 p.m. tomorrow.
All county schools and offices will be closed on Friday. The St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport will close to the public after its last scheduled flight at this evening. The runways will remain open as long as weather permits. Tampa International Airport is scheduled to close at noon tomorrow.
TBNWeekly.com will update its information in the morning when new information becomes available. Visit the tropical weather center for the latest reports from the National Weather Service Hurricane Center.