Officials gathered for a press briefing on Hurricane Irma Sunday morning, including Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, standing at the podium. Other officials attending were, from left, Congressman Charlie Crist, Emergency Management Director Sally Bishop, Assistant County Administrator John Bennett, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and County Administrator Mark Woodard.
LARGO – The biggest message from the 11:30 a.m. Sunday press briefing from Pinellas County officials is to stay in place after Irma passes.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said one of the first actions that will be taken by law enforcement, besides assisting other first responders with immediate search and rescue needs, will be to seal the county’s borders.
No one will be allowed in except people who are coming to help with the aftermath of the storm.
“Don’t try to rush back,” Gualtieri said, adding that anyone that does try to get back into the county would be turned back or be stuck at the checkpoint.
He said as soon as it is safe to do so, the sheriff’s office helicopters will go up and coordination with first responders on the ground will begin. The public needs to stay wherever they are until they are told it is safe to venture outside.
“Wait until we tell you it is safe to come back,” he said.
The city of St. Petersburg is enacting a curfew that will begin at 5 p.m. today. Gualtieri said no curfew would be issued for Pinellas. He is counting on the public to stay off the streets so those responsible for search and rescue, restoring services, clearing debris, opening roads and making sure conditions are safe can do their work.
“We want to keep this orderly,” Gualtieri said. “We want this to go well.”
Bridges to the barrier islands will remain closed until they can be inspected by the Florida Department of Transportation, which could take some time. The public will not be allowed back on the beach until it is safe for them to be there.
Gualtieri said he understood that people wanted to get back to their homes. Officials asked for patience from the public to allow first responders and others to do their jobs.
Time has run out to evacuate. Everyone needs to stay in place until further notice.
Gualtieri said more people had left the barrier islands today, which was good news. Some people, however, were not making good decisions, he said. He told of a man who had decided to remain on his boat with his 10-year-old son. Deputies gave him the choice of leaving with his son, or they were going to take his son away.
“He made the right decision,” the sheriff said.
Tropical storm force winds should arrive in the area about 2 p.m. and last until 11 a.m. Monday. Hurricane force winds with gusts of up to 115 mph should begin about 7 p.m. and last for eight hours. Rainfall of 7-10 inches is expected in a 24-hour window. Storm surge of 5-8 feet is expected starting around 6 p.m. and lasting about 12 hours.
About 17,000 people were housed in a county shelter as of Sunday morning with plenty of space available. The shelters were at 56 percent capacity. The county is under Level A and Level B evacuation orders, which includes all mobile home parks until further notice.
Gualtieri said he would be pulling deputies off the streets when maximum winds reached 50 mph. Other first responders will stop responding when winds reach 40 mph. They will be staged in shelters throughout the county and be ready to respond as soon as winds die down.
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is closed and other bridges will be closed when sustained winds reach 40 mph.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said the time to prepare had passed and the city was now focused on dealing with the aftermath. He said he would seek resources from the federal government so normalcy could be restored as quickly as possible.
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said preparations were complete in his city, and it too was focused on doing whatever it takes to get things back to normal as fast as possible. He asked that people stay in their homes or the shelters and be patience.
“This is going to be difficult,” he said, adding there was no reason to rush back to places where there is no power and safety is not assured.
Everyone talked about the excellent communication between the county, state and federal governments as preparations for before, during and after the storm have been ongoing for this past week. Gualtieri termed is as “unprecedented.”
Congressman Charlie Crist said the federal government had already approved funding for Irma, as well as Hurricane Harvey.
Woodard said everyone in Tampa Bay would likely be experiencing the same weather conditions with some variation with storm surge.
Officials repeated their message – stay home, stay safe and remain in place until you’re told conditions are safe.
“As long as everyone cooperates and stays off the streets, it allows us to do our work,” Gualtieri said.