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Roadway Assistance, Local Host Shelters For Irma Evacuees

Florida Public Radio Emergency Network

As Hurricane Irma, still a strong Category 4 storm as of Friday evening, continues to barrel toward South Florida, state and local officials have ramped up efforts to help those fleeing the devastating storm.

For the past week, Florida Governor Rick Scott has been traveling the state urging all residents to be prepared for Irma. On Friday, he conducted briefings in Tampa, Ft. Myers and West Palm Beach. At more nearly 400 miles across, Irma will impact almost every part of the state. 

“Here’s what we now know, the majority of Florida will have major hurricane impacts with deadly storm surge and life-threatening winds,” said Scott.  “And, we can expect this along the entire east coast and the entire west coast.”

Scott reiterated his call for all residents under evacuation orders to do the right thing and leave before it’s too late, despite acknowledgement that evacuating is hard and uncomfortable.

“I think about my mom and how hard it would have been on her to be completely broke with kids and have to evacuate, but you’ve got to do it. You have to keep your family safe.”

Credit Florida Department of Transportation
Florida Department of Transportation
To help the flow of Hurricane Irma evacuees, the Florida Department of Transportation has increased its Road Rangers patrol.

The governor also acknowledged that many of those residents heeding evacuation orders have been stuck in traffic. To assist, 1,700 Florida Highway Patrol troopers are working 12-hour shifts to keep the traffic moving.

“We’ve also increased the number of road rangers, who are patrolling Florida’s roadways 24-7 to assist motorists,” Scott said. “Around the state, we have 13 traffic management centers where hundreds of (Florida) D-O-T workers are monitoring traffic cameras 24-7 to ensure traffic flows continue and evacuations proceed without interruption.”

With so many people on the roads, the state is working to replenish gas supplies as soon as possible.  

When it comes to a place to stay, hotels are filling up fast. But, the governor has taken steps to ensure there will be a safe place for all who need.

“Last night, I directed the closure of all public schools, state colleges, state universities, and state offices for their normal activities effective today through Monday to ensure we have every space available for sheltering and staging.”

“We’ve got the request from the state of Florida to support what we call a host shelter and basically that’s hosting people from out of our community, who have fled their homes as a result of hurricane Irma,” said John Dosh, Emergency Management Chief for Escambia County.

Credit Pensacola Bay Center
Pensacola Bay Center
Escambia County is opening the Pensacola Bay Center as a host shelter for Hurricane Irma evacuees from Central and South Florida.

He says the county has teamed with the local Red Cross chapter to open the Pensacola Bay Center beginning at 5 p.m. Friday. The host shelter will be set up to accommodate those with pets and special needs. Dosh says the information received from Visit Pensacola shows hotel occupancy in Escambia had reached about 98 percent by Friday afternoon, an indication that the county operated safe havens were needed.

“So, they’re pretty much filled up for the most part,” Dosh said. “They’re some around, but they’re either very expensive or hard to find.”

Elsewhere across the region, Santa Rosa County has opened the Christian Life Church on Avalon Boulevard in Milton as a host shelter for Central and South Florida evacuees, with a second shelter on standby if needed. The Christian Life shelter is not equipped to handle pets or special needs.

Okaloosa County is also opening two shelters for the incoming evacuees. Shoal River Middle School in Crestview was set to open at 4 p.m. Friday, and when that reaches 75% capacity, Riverside Elementary School will be opened as a shelter.

The Florida Highway Patrol will be directing evacuees to these shelters via digital signage along Interstate 10. As of mid-afternoon, Dosh indicated there were not significant issues to report on the highway locally.

“It’s heavy traffic, it’s moving, and it’s moving at a pretty decent rate to the point where we’re not seeing huge problems with backups, but they do occur periodically,” said Dosh.

Again, all the local shelters that are opening are for individuals evacuating the storm from central and south Florida only, because no local evacuations have been ordered.

And, after speaking with forecasters from the National Weather Service Office in Mobile, Dosh says it appears no such action will be needed in this part of the Panhandle.

“So they’re pretty confident right now on what the hurricane center is forecasting and at present we should see little to no impact other than like I said those windy conditions on Sunday and Monday.”

Meantime, as we head into the weekend, Northwest Florida residents are encouraged to keep an eye on Hurricane Irma just in case.

And, local county operations will continue as usual, all state offices, public schools K-12, and state colleges and universities will be closed through Monday.

This includes all classes, campus activities and athletic events. And, for the University of West Florida, that means cancellation of Saturday’s football home opener as well this weekend’s home soccer games.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.