Sheriff Bob Gualtieri updates the press on evacuations for Hurricane Irma Sept. 8 at the Emergency Operations Center in Largo. Standing behind, from left, are Emergency Management Director Sally Bishop, County Commission Chair Janet Long, Assistant County Administrator John Bennett and County Administrator Mark Woodard.
Access to Pinellas County’s barrier islands is restricted to people who have reason to be there.
That’s because the area is under a mandatory evacuation order, as of 6 a.m. Friday, Sept. 8. Residents and businesses have until 8 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 10, to vacate their premises.
Local law enforcement began restricting access at 10 a.m. Friday from the Dunedin Causeway south. Only residents, property owners, business owners, business employees and contractors with a reason to be in the area will be allowed onto the islands.
The restrictions will continue until Hurricane Irma passes the county.
To gain access, people need to have a re-entry permit or photo ID and proof they that reside or have business on the islands. Examples of proof include a vehicle registration, property tax or utility bill, or proof of employment, such as a pay stub, work ID, uniform or work orders.
At a press briefing Friday morning at the county Emergency Operations Center in Largo, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri explained that the Barrier Island re-entry permit program had been in place for three years and communicated to the public.
Still, “Hundreds of people are showing up that don’t know about it,” he said.
The purpose of the program is to keep people out that don’t need to be on the islands to better safeguard property of those who have followed the evacuation order.
Thirty deputies have been assigned to Gulf Boulevard. Additional law enforcement officers also are working in the area, as well as in all Level A evacuation areas, to create a “significant and visible presence” to deter people with “bad intentions” from going into those areas, Gualtieri said, adding that the sheriff’s office and other law enforcement agencies had adequate resources to provide necessary security.
“We’ll make every effort to safeguard property,” he said, emphasizing that for safety’s sake people living in evacuation areas need to leave by Sunday morning.
“People need to be moving now,” he said.
According to Florida law, people who don’t follow mandatory evacuation orders can be arrested. But Gualtieri said local law enforcement has no intentions of arresting people who won’t leave, nor will they be going door-to-door to make sure people leave.
The sheriff did say that anyone who decided to stay would be doing so at their “own risk, their own personal peril.”
He said if weather conditions intensified, law enforcement would be “pulled off the streets” and no help would be available for those who might need it. He urged people to “take responsibility for their own safety” and follow the evacuation order.
The order also applies to businesses and hotels, which were in the process of evacuating as of Friday afternoon with plans to be out by Sunday.
“No one should be there after 8 a.m. Sunday,” Gualtieri said.
Approximately 160,000 people are included in the Level A evacuation, which includes all mobile home residents, special needs residents and residents and businesses located in the Level A evacuation zone.
Officials have not yet decided whether to order a Level C evacuation, which also would include people living in a Level B evacuation zone. Nearly 500,000 people would be affected.
If a Level C is ordered Gualtieri said law enforcement still would enough resources to safeguard the areas.
“We have adequate personnel to accomplish security,” he said.
The sheriff said many had expressed concern about the inmates in the county jail on 49th Street North in Clearwater. Approximately 3,000 were in jail as of Friday morning and the jail was at capacity with about 200 sleeping on the floor.
Gualtieri said if any flooding occurred, inmates would be moved to higher floors.
“Everyone in the jail is safe,” he said.
If a Level C evacuation were ordered, the 400 living at Safe Harbor would be moved to Pinellas Park High School.
Gualtieri addressed some of the complaints coming in about the evacuations.
He said everybody was working to make decisions in the interest of public safety; however, “it’s an art, not a science,” admitting that the decisions might not be perfect, but were being “made from the heart with everyone’s best interest in mind.”
“I’d like to see nothing more than for it (Irma) to evaporate and go away,” he said. “But that’s not reality. We’re trying to keep everyone as safe as we can.”
Emergency Management Director Sally Bishop said a decision about additional evacuations wouldn’t come until after 5 p.m. when updated information on storm surge becomes available from the National Weather Service.
At 11:24 a.m., NWS was predicting a peak storm surge potential of 1-3 feet above ground in surge prone areas of Pinellas. If storm surge occurs, it would begin early Sunday evening. Bishop explained that storm surge wouldn’t be a possibility until Irma gets north of the county.
NWS predicts that peak winds will be 45-60 mph with gusts to 80 mph occurring most likely on Sunday morning through Monday afternoon. Rainfall totals of at 3-4 inches are possible.
If the county orders additional evacuations, it would start on Saturday, which wouldn’t allow much time. Residents are welcome to evacuate voluntarily now. Bishop said people don’t have to go hundreds of miles away. She said there are non-evacuation zones in Pinellas and other points closer than another state.
“To get on the road at the point to get out of state is not recommended,” she said.
The county’s seven shelters opened at noon Friday and staff reported that everything was running smoothly, including at shelters accepting pets. No issues had been reported on evacuations of special needs residents or the homeless. Assistant County Administrator John Bennett said residents of Pinellas Hope were moving to shelters.
County drawbridges will be locked in the down position by 7 a.m. Sasturday to allow for faster vehicle traffic as people continue to evacuate from the barrier islands and in anticipation of high winds. The bridges will remain in the locked down position while the Level A evacuations are in effect.
Commissioner Janet Long cautioned people to be leery about information on social media. She urged the public to call in and check the facts. The county’s Citizen Information Center is open. The public can call 727-464-4333 to check out rumors, such as the county will be shutting off electricity or water to areas under an evacuation order, which is not going to happen.
As of Friday morning, the Citizen Information Center was averaging about 1,000 calls a day, according to Marketing and Communications Director Barbra Hernandez.
Long urged people to call and double-check information on social media before spreading something that might not be true.