CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – With Clay County emergency management officials preparing for the threat of wind damage as a result of Tropical Storm Eta, the school district announced schools will be closed Thursday.
Clay District Schools Superintendent David Broskie said at a news conference early Wednesday evening that the decision to close all schools and offices, as well as cancel all after-school activities, on Thursday was made based on information from the National Hurricane Center and Clay County Emergency Management.
“With students trying to go to the bus stop in the morning, in the dark, with the windy conditions, we don’t believe that it’s safe,” Broskie said. “We always like to keep students' safety and the safety of our employees as our top priority, and that’s why we’ve decided to make that decision.”
Broskie said the plan is for schools and offices to reopen Friday.
He said that this time was already built in, so the student calendar will not need to be adjusted.
COUNTY-BY-COUNTY: Northeast Florida preps for impact as Eta weakens to tropical storm
Clay County Emergency Management Director John Ward said the timeline for the storm has moved up, with the area now expected to start seeing impacts earlier Thursday morning, potentially between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m.
“We’re expecting 30 mph winds with some gusts of 40 throughout the day, and they should go through early afternoon, and then it should be out of our area,” Ward said. “So we’re continuing to monitor those conditions."
Ward added some lighter rainfall is also expected.
“We’re only looking at about an inch or 2 inches of rain,” he said. “We may monitor some of the bands as they come through that may drop some significant rainfall at one period of time. We may see some of that urban flooding at that time.”
At a news conference earlier Wednesday, Ward had also addressed the possibility of some urban flooding.
“We’ve got areas in the, you know, College Drive, Town of Orange Park, those type things that, you know, even getting a couple inches of rain, the drainage system is a little bit slower, that type thing, we generally see a little bit of flooding in those areas,” he said. "I think those that urban flooding is what we’re really going to be watching for tomorrow.”
Ward asked residents to use caution if they have to go out Thursday morning.
“With bands of rainfall and wind coming through the area, so it could move around debris, it could knock down tree limbs, and worst-case scenario, we could bring down some power lines," Ward said. “So I think just being cautious as we’re driving through the minimal rain and the winds."
Ward said the county’s Emergency Operations Center is currently activated and government offices will still be open.
Residents in western Clay County on alert
Ward said at Wednesday night’s news conference that the primary impacts are expected to be in the western and southwestern portions of the county, as well as along the river and in the Doctors Lake area.
While the primary threat of this storm is expected to be wind damage, Orange Park resident Margie Keeling is concerned about rain amounts. Her home flooded during Hurricane Irma, and she was forced to live in a hotel for months while her home was rebuilt.
“Just the interior. The whole inside was, like, in water. It was like there was dead fish laying when it receded, snakes in the house,” Keeling said. “It was bad.”
Now, she’s watching the weather system closely.
“I am very concerned about it,” Keeling said. “I don’t know if I can go through another flood. They had to come in a boat to get us out of here.”
Her neighbors along Aquarius Concourse, which sits near McGirts Creek, are also monitoring the storm.
“There’s a creek that flows behind those houses and it’s prone to flooding, which connects to the river right there on Blanding [Boulevard] that you drive over,” explained Orange Park resident Forrest Sherrill.
While major flooding isn’t expected from this storm, Clay County resident Paul Morse has had to rebuild his home after each flood and doesn’t want standing water to bring any more damage to his home.
“I’ve had 3 ½ feet through the whole house, minnows swimming down the hallways,” Morse said. “Really worried. Every time it rains, my friends call me and they’re, like, ‘Oh, you worried Paul?’ Hopefully, we’ll be OK if it doesn’t sit on us.”
No issues expected with Black Creek
Ward said they do not expect any issues with Black Creek, which is historically known for flooding, because of the low amount of recent rain and the current state of the river basins.
Some residents in the area of Black Creek spent Wednesday preparing for the storm’s effects -- big or small.
Kevin Davis, who lives on the creek’s bank, along with his two dogs, told News4Jax he bought a trailer a while back just so he can pack up his belongings and evacuate at short notice.
“I plan on taking the boat out of the water. I don’t have a lift, so I think that’s the first thing I should do and then get everything out of my shop," Davis said. "I think just not taking any chances is the best way to go. I mean, if I’m wrong, OK. I’ll, you know, unpack everything and put everything back where it was, but at least I’ll know I’m prepared.”
Davis is no stranger to flooding.
“After Irma, you know, it’s hard to recover from that one. It came all the way up underneath the house and did a lot of damage,” he said.
Other residents told News4Jax they’ve prepared their gas-powered generators, nonperishable food items and elevated what belonged they need -- all to be safe, rather than sorry.
Orange Park leaders concerned about downed trees
Town leaders in Orange Park told News4Jax Wednesday night that they’re mostly concerned about downed trees because there is so much tree coverage in Orange Park.
News4Jax also asked about the major drainage operation in certain Orange Park neighborhoods. Orange Park Town Manager Sarah Campbell said they’re still waiting on grant money.
“Design has been awarded for a number of projects, including riverbank stabilization and several of the Dudley Branch culvert increments,” Campbell said. “So we’re hopeful that those will get to move to the bid and construction phase here in the coming year.”