TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis cautioned Floridians to remain on guard after Isaias was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm Saturday afternoon.
A National Hurricane Center advisory predicted that the storm will re-strengthen into a hurricane while traveling over warm waters as it approaches Florida’s Southeastern shoreline on Sunday.
“Don’t be fooled by the downgrade,” DeSantis told reporters during a Saturday afternoon press conference at the state Emergency Operations Center. “We do think it will be upgraded back to a hurricane later on this evening.”
The 5 p.m. update from the National Hurricane Center showed a more tightly packed Isaias with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph after the storm weakened after passing over Andros Island in the Bahamas earlier Saturday. According to “some of the more reliable models,” it is expected to make landfall along the east-central coast of Florida Sunday afternoon.
A hurricane warning was in place from Boca Raton in Palm Beach County to the Volusia-Flagler county line. A warning is typically issued 36 hours before the anticipated first occurrence of tropical-storm force winds, the advisory said.
“Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” weather officials advised.
A tropical-storm warning was in effect from Flagler County to Ponte Vedra Beach, and storm surge is expected from the Jupiter Inlet north to Ponte Vedra Beach near Jacksonville.
Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy Florida have advised customers to expect Isaias to cause some power outages. FPL has about 10,000 workers in staging areas along the coast, officials said.
Officials from the energy providers have previously advised state utility regulators that, because of the coronavirus pandemic, out-of-state assistance may not be as available as it has been in previous storm events. The lack of additional aid could delay restoration efforts in some areas, they warned.
DeSantis said he lifted weight restrictions on Friday for fuel trucks operating on Florida roads and, as of Saturday evening, there were no reports of fuel shortages.
DeSantis on Friday declared a state of emergency for 19 counties along the east coast, and 12 counties -- Palm Beach, Monroe, Volusia, Osceola, Seminole, Brevard, Indian River, Martin, Orange, Okeechobee, Glades and Flagler -- have issued local states of emergency.
President Donald Trump approved the state’s request for a pre-landfall emergency declaration that will provide federal reimbursement for mass-care feeding and sheltering. DeSantis made the request Friday afternoon, shortly after Isaias reached hurricane strength.
The governor met with the president, his close ally, at a coronavirus-related event at the Pelican Golf Club in Belleair late Friday afternoon.
No mandatory evacuations had been ordered as Isaias churned off Florida’s Atlantic coast on Saturday.
Due to social-distancing measures recommended in response to the coronavirus pandemic, DeSantis said officials may refrain from ordering evacuations unless absolutely necessary.
“In the era of COVID, I think our guidance from the state has been, look, if it’s a close call, err on the side of people just hunkering down, rather than sending people on the road,” he said at the Saturday evening briefing. “But obviously, if there does come a point, if you’re in an area and the storm is threatening and that decision is made, we ask you to follow it.”
Palm Beach County officials opened five shelters on Saturday, and issued voluntary evacuation orders in certain areas for individuals in mobile homes and flood zones.
“This will be a very close call for Palm Beach County,” Bill Johnson, the county’s emergency management director, said at a 4 p.m. briefing Saturday. “Because of COVID-19, we continue to feel that you are safer at home.”
Johnson said there were 150 people, who are required to wear face coverings, at the county shelters Saturday afternoon. A pet-friendly shelter had 15 dogs, 8 cats and one bird, he said.
The county is under a hurricane warning, a tropical storm warning, a coastal flood advisory and a high surface-wind advisory.
Meanwhile, as with other South Florida counties, Palm Beach County remains a hot spot for the coronavirus, reporting 580 new cases on Saturday.
Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner acknowledged the difficulty of facing the threat from Isaias at the same time as coping with the pandemic.
“I know it’s a lot to contend with as a community,” Kerner told reporters during Saturday afternoon’s briefing at the county Emergency Operations Center. “But we cannot let our foot off the gas in terms of our response and our diligence in social distancing and making sure that we remain safe and do not transmit COVID-19.”
The state Division of Emergency Management is sending sheltering kits to counties in the potential path of Isaias. The kits include personal protective equipment and 1.8 million meals. The state is also working with utility companies to pre-stage power restoration crews.
Meanwhile, special operations groups from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are on standby for urban search-and-rescue efforts.
Patients with COVID-19 at a Brevard County hospital are being relocated to a neighboring health-care facility, DeSantis said Saturday morning. The Department of Health doesn’t anticipate other hospitals needing to evacuate patients, he added.
“Pay close attention to The Weather Channel, to official updates at the state and local level,” DeSantis said. “This is something that’s an evolving situation and we know we are going to get some impacts. What shape those impacts take remains to be seen.”
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said residents need to hunker down.
“We’re going to feel strong winds and get heavy wind today, particularly between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.,” Gimenez told reporters during an early-morning video conference. “Everyone should be safely staying at home. Do not go out unless you really need to.”