Assistant County Administrator John Bennett offers some advice for residents in non-evacuation zones who have decided to remain in place during a Sept. 9 media briefing at the Emergency Operations Center in Largo. Standing behind, from left, are Sheriff Bob Gulatieri, County Administrator Mark Woodard, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos. Also standing in front is an unidentified sign language interpreter.
LARGO - People in Pinellas County were rushing to finish preparations and vacate their homes and businesses Saturday ahead of a major hurricane expected to affect the area on Sunday and Monday.
Tropical storm force winds are expected to arrive in Pinellas about 2 p.m. Sunday and last for 24 hours. Hurricane force winds are expected to begin at 8 p.m. Sunday and last nine hours.
County officials say this will be a “significant” wind event.
Rainfall of 6-8 inches is forecast with the potential for more. Storm surge, which is the biggest threat, is forecast to be 3-5 feet and could double if Hurricane Irma’s track shifts westward, said County Administrator Mark Woodard during a media briefing Saturday morning at the Emergency Operations Center in Largo.
The worse of the storm surge is expected to occur between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Monday.
A mandatory Level A and Level B evacuation is in place, which includes all mobile homes in Pinellas regardless of location.
“This is a dangerous, impactful storm and people need to give it serious attention and take immediate action,” Woodard said. “People in an A or B zone and in mobile homes must evacuate. The time for procrastination is over. You must act now.”
Approximately 260,000 people are affected by the order.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said a decision would be made sometime Saturday afternoon about adding additional restrictions to the barrier islands. He said at some point, all access would be restricted, but he did not know yet when that would occur.
Gualtieri said people should evacuate now and not wait for the 8 a.m. Sunday deadline, which was put into place for legal reasons only.
“People in Zones A and B should go now,” he said. “The deadline is not really the time to leave.”
Gualtieri reminded residents that as conditions deteriorated, all first responders would be “pulled off the streets.”
“You can call but we won’t be coming,” he said, adding that calls would be responded to as soon as conditions were safe for emergency and law personnel to do so.
“We’re not going to put our people at risk because people made a bad decision (not to evacuate),” he said.
He said 100 deputies had been assigned to safeguard property of residents and businesses in the evacuation zones. He said all days off for sheriff’s personnel had been canceled and the number of deputies had been doubled in contract cities and patrol areas.
Safe Harbor, which is a homeless shelter run by the sheriff’s office, has been shut down and residents have been moved to shelters. The county jail is in a Level B evacuation zone and Gualtieri said plans were underway to move inmates to the areas of the jail that are the most hurricane resistant and to upper floors, due to flooding concerns.
The jail is at capacity with 3,000 inmates and 200 are sleeping on the floor. He said consolidating inmates to keep them safe through the hurricane would “be a challenge.”
County officials do not believe that a Level C evacuation will be necessary because water levels due to storm surge should not get high enough to warrant that action.
Assistant County Administrator John Bennett said things were running smoothly at the county’s 16 shelters with space still available in all including the three that are accepting pets. For a list of shelter locations and to check your evacuation level, visit www.pinellascounty.org.
Bennett offered some advice to residents in non-evacuation zones who had chosen to stay. They should follow their tornado plan and move to an interior room of their home. Perhaps place soft items around them, such as cushions. He said the strongest winds would be coming at night, so people should listen for sounds that could indicate a tornado or other problem and move immediately to their safe room.
Make sure all your electronic devices are fully charged and your supplies are available, including enough food and water to last three to four days.
“People do fairly well in wind events,” he said.
He said anyone who didn’t feel safe in their own home should seek shelter with family or friends who lived in a non-evacuation zone. He said people who felt their homes were vulnerable should go somewhere safe. He added that as many people as possible would be “crammed into shelters.”
When asked how many people were in shelters now, he said, “not enough.”
“We need everyone to take this seriously,” he said.
Bennett said that the trajectory and intensity of Hurricane Irma makes it different from any hurricane he or other county Emergency Management staff had ever dealt with.
“This is something to take extremely seriously,” he said.