ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – With Hurricane Irma projected to bring higher wind speeds and storm surge that Hurricane Matthew last October, St. Johns County has ordered a mandatory evacuation of the entire city of St. Augustine, the town of Hastings, Anastasia Island, everyone in Zones A and B and those living in mobile homes or on boats, the county has declared a state of emergency to access resources and assistance to prepare for Hurricane Irma.
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The county's Emergency Operations Center -- located off Interstate 95 near State Road 16 -- is open, monitoring the National Hurricane Center's updates and having firefighters man phones. The EOC will be activating to Level 1 -- full activation -- at 8 a.m. Friday.
The county opened four emergency shelters at 6 a.m. on Saturday:
- Pacetti Bay Middle School, 245 Meadowlark Lane (special needs)
- Timberland Creek Elementary, 555 Pine Tree Lane (pet friendly)
- Bartram Trail High School, 7399 Longleaf Pine Parkway
- Pedro Menendez High School, 600 State Road 206 West, which is at capacity.
"This storm is unlike anything Florida has experienced in recent memory," said Jimmy Johns, commission chairman. "It's potential impact cannot be underestimated.
Residents can verify their evacuation zones by visiting http://www.gis.bocc.co.st-johns.fl.us/MYEZ.
At some point as the storm nears, water in the evacuation zones may be turned off and a 6 p.m. and 6 p.m. curfew will be instituted. With heavy traffic of evacuees coming out of south Florida at the same time St. Johns County is preparing to evacuate, the Sheriff's Office may prevent people from trying to enter the county from I-95.
"It's going to take a lot of patience, it's going to take a lot of collaboration," Sheriff David Shoar said. "After the evacuation order goes into effect and people leave these flood areas, they will not be allowed back in until we collectively make that decision.”
St. Johns County Emergency Management Director Linda Stoughton said she was excited about the phones ringing because that means people are getting answers to their questions.
Callers had questions about where they can find sandbags, how to register people with special medical needs and about evacuations zones. People were also asking about evacuation shelter locations, which have already been designated if they need to open.
"Our shelters are determined. We have 14 shelters within St. Johns County. They are for wind and water events, like hurricanes. Those are pre-established, and which ones we open and how many we open are part of a modeling that we do in partnership with the St. Johns County School District," Stoughton said. "But all of our plans are being reviewed, all of our checklists are going through today, as we encourage everybody to do for their families, for their businesses to get ready."
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Stoughton said having Gov. Rick Scott declare a state of emergency across Florida creates access to emergency responders on a more comprehensive scale.
"It does open up different departments that we can utilize to help prepare on the local level," she said. "So it gives us the opportunity to have those discussions with the state of Florida and make those preparations should we need assistance."
Even while victims of Hurricane Matthew are still waiting on federal money in their recovery, experts are trying to anticipate every circumstance ahead of Irma's arrival.
"Certainly, it is historic," Stoughton said. "In my career, I've never seen a hurricane, I don't think anybody has, with this type of intensity."
Stoughton said any changes in the exact track of Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm with winds of 185 mph, projection won't entirely shift preparations in St. Johns County, but could significantly change the kind of response needed.
"The difference with Mathew was when Matthew's winds stayed offshore. We had a 31-mile buffer that kept Matthew's winds, basically, offshore from us," she said. "This will not be the same with Irma if she comes up the east coast of Florida. We will have major impacts, severe impacts. Not only with storm surge of it, also wind, and that will be another key factor that we'll have to look at, that we're looking at here at the Emergency Operations Center -- are the winds that we could be facing."
The EOC continues to look at the possible impacts, which could include storm surge, flooding, tornadoes, and tropical storm-force and hurricane-force winds.
Officials are asking St. Johns County residents to take time to make sure that your NOAA weather radio is operational. The programming numbers for the NOAA weather radios are as follows:
- Northern St. Johns County -- Jacksonville Transmitter 162.550
- Southern St. Johns County -- Palatka Transmitter 162.425
- S.A.M.E number for specific County programming 012109
All public schools and district offices in St. Johns County will be closed on Friday and Monday due to Hurricane Irma.
Schools will operate as normal on Thursday and scheduled evening activities will take place.
District administration is working with the Emergency Operations Center and will provide additional updates as necessary via its communication system and on its website at www.stjohns.k12.fl.us.
Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind has canceled classes for Thursday and Friday.
In response to Hurricane Irma, the St. Johns County Emergency Operations Center has opened a hotline for residents to call regarding county services, storm response and events.
People are asked to call the St. Johns County Emergency Management hotline at 904-824-5550 for non-emergency storm-related information.
The hotline will be available from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. If you have a life-threatening emergency should call 911. For additional Hurricane Irma-related information, visit www.sjcfl.us/hurricane.
St. Johns County has activated a hotline for residents and business owners with concerns regarding property and structural damage due to Hurricane Irma. If you have storm-related structural damage or permitting questions, please call the St. Johns County Building Services Structural Hotline at 904-827-6836.
St. Johns County discontinues re-entry tag program
The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office said Hurricane Matthew gave community leaders an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of emergency preparedness response and recovery plans.
As a result of that evaluation, deputies said, the evacuation re-entry tag program has been discontinued. In the past, re-entry tags were issued to residents and business owners east of the Intracoastal Waterway. Green tags were issued for residents and business owners were issued two orange tags per business. While the tags were not mandatory, the goal was that they would contribute to a smoother and quicker re-entry process as residents returned home after a storm.
Evacuation re-entry will now be done through proof of residence in evacuated areas. Examples of proof of residence can be a driver’s license, state identification card, utility bill or lease agreement.
Anyone with questions or concerns can call St. Johns County Emergency Management at 904-824-5550.
St. Augustine begins preparations
Though it's still unclear what impact Hurricane Irma will have on Northeast Florida, the city of St. Augustine on Tuesday began its storm preparations.
The city’s emergency operations are coordinated from the main fire station by Fire Chief Carlos Aviles who, as the city’s emergency operations coordinator, maintains close contact with the St. Johns County Emergency Operations Center, which coordinates efforts countywide and hand-in-hand with the state of Florida.
Each department within the city has a preparedness plan designed to meet that department’s needs in close coordination with all others. Aviles met Tuesday with departmental directors to review their emergency preparations, and even though it is too early to determine what impact the storm may have on St. Augustine, there is one consistent message: get prepared, follow procedures and don’t be complacent.
The nation's oldest city was one of the heartbreaking scenes less than a year ago when Hurricane Matthew swept up Florida's east coast. If the impact of Irma comes up the coast again, business owners in the ancient city said they're prepared, but praying they don't have to go through the destruction again.
"We had to rip everything out," said Reggie Maggs, one of the owners of Meehan's Irish Pub in St. Augustine. "The walls, the floors, the equipment -- it was all gone and rebuilt from scratch again."
Hurricane Matthew flooded Meehan's and neighbors along old St. Augustine's bayfront, but the storm also left an emotional scar.
"Last year, the water is what killed us the most," Maggs told News4Jax on Tuesday.
Maggs said that has him preparing for the worst, and hoping for the best, from Hurricane Irma.
"The city just came back strong. We came back stronger than ever. The silver lining: We got all new equipment, all new floors and walls. I mean, you got to take to something out of it," he said. "(But) I do not want to do it again. I don't mind a wee bit of wind or something, but I do not want to deal with all that water again and ripping out walls."
Maggs added, "The storm's going to come. We can't stop that. Wish I could."
For now, he said, the entire restaurant staff knows the plan for how to hunker down if it comes to that.
City officials urged residents and business owners to review their own emergency plans as they continue to monitor the storm. More information can be found at www.SJCEmergencyManagement.org or by calling St. Johns County EOC at 904-824-5550.
Sandbags run out
St. Johns County began distributing sandbags from six locations at noon Wednesday and ran out of sandbags Thursday morning.
The city of St. Augustine began providing sandbags starting at 8 a.m. Thursday at Francis Field on West Castillo Drive and was out by 11:30 a.m.
News4Jax is working to learn if the county or city will be getting more sandbags.
Beaches closed to vehicles
All St. Johns County beaches are closed to vehicular traffic and will remain closed throughout the duration of Hurricane Irma. All trash receptacles, portalets, cones, and other beach infrastructure will be removed. Coastal flooding could warrant multiple day closures of certain beach access ramps. Beach Services will inspect the beach during and after the event to reinstate vehicular access as soon as conditions allow.
As Hurricane Irma approaches the coast, surf conditions are expected to increase significantly as well as dangerous rip current activity. Residents are encouraged to avoid the beach and ocean swimming until conditions improve.
In addition, the St. Johns County Ocean and Fishing Pier will close Friday and will remain closed throughout the duration of the storm. Pier staff will continue to monitor wind and weather conditions and will reopen the Pier when safe and appropriate.
In preparation for Hurricane Irma and the impacts it could have on the community, all administrative offices for St. Johns County, the City of St. Augustine and the City of St. Augustine Beach will be closed Friday through Monday. The town of Hastings offices will be closed Friday through Monday and will reopen Tuesday.
All courthouses and court operations in St. Johns County will be closed Friday through Tuesday. Conditions permitting courts will re-open Wednesday.
St. Johns County Libraries will be closed Friday through Monday.
The Solomon Calhoun Pool will close on Friday and remain closed until further notice.
Castillo de San Marcos & Fort Matanzas National Monuments will be closed beginning Thursday. All scheduled events are canceled until the parks reopen.
For updates, please check park websites at www.nps.gov/casa and www.nps.gov/foma. Follow us on social media at www.facebook.com/CastilloNPS and www.facebook.com/FortMatanzasNPS or www.twitter.com/CastilloNPS and www.twitter.com/FortMatanzasNPS.
Due to the impending effects of Hurricane Irma, and upon the advice of the City of St. Augustine, this weekend's Grand Tasting and Spanish Wine Festival events have been canceled. After the storm has passed, every effort will be made to re-schedule each of the Wine Festival events.
The St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce has announced that because of the possibility of adverse weather conditions due to Hurricane Irma it is in all parties’ best interest to reschedule the Ponte Vedra Auto Show event scheduled for Sunday. The 2017 Ponte Vedra Auto Show presented by Fields Automotive will take place at the Nocatee Town Center on Sunday, Sept. 24. The event will begin at 9 a.m. and end after the awards ceremony concludes at 3 p.m. To find out more about the Ponte Vedra Auto Show visit www.PVAutoshow.com. Auto Show participants can contact the Ponte Vedra Beach Division of the St. Johns County Chamber for more information at 904-285-2004.
St. Johns County Pier remains open but will close 2 days prior to projected impacts from Hurricane Irma. Due to potential impacts from Hurricane Irma, SJC Beach Services will be removing the infrastructure (trash cans, cones, signs, porta-potties) from the beach on Thursday and beach driving will be temporarily suspended until conditions improve.
The Ponte Vedra Zoning and Adjustment Board meeting scheduled for Monday has been canceled. Notice will be given when a rescheduled date is determined.
The City of St. Augustine’s budget hearings scheduled for Thursday have been canceled and will be rescheduled as soon as possible. The meetings were related to the city’s two Community Development Areas (CRA), the Historic Area CRA and the Lincolnville CRA, and adoption of a tentative millage rate. The cancellation was made possible by Scott's executive order, waiving statutory timing requirements regarding millage and budget hearings because of Hurricane Irma. For more information, call 904-825-1006.
Due to Hurricane Irma and its effects on Florida, Thursday's Modest Mouse concert has been canceled, Friday’s Blackberry Smoke concert has been postponed and this weekend’s Sing Out Loud events have been canceled.
The Sing Out Loud Festival events scheduled for Friday through Sunday have been canceled. The remainder of the Sing Out Loud events (September 15 through 17 and September 22 through 24) are currently scheduled to take place. For updates regarding the Sing Out Loud Festival, please visit www.singoutloudfestival.com.
Ponte Vedra Concert Hall has cancelled the Florida Chamber Music Event on Sunday.
Council on Aging is suspending operation of the Sunshine Bus system beginning Saturday.
Friends of the Ponte Vedra Beach Branch Library Book Sale scheduled for Tuesday through Saturday has been canceled.
St. Augustine's annual Ceremony of Remembrance for 9/11 and the regular St. Augustine City Commission meeting scheduled for Monday have been canceled. The regular meeting of the Code Enforcement, Adjustments and Appeals Board (CEAAB) scheduled for Tuesday has also been canceled.