Jacksonville mayor: ‘Pay attention, be prepared’ as Elsa approaches

Duval County Public Schools campuses, city-run pools and summer camps will be closed Wednesday

VIDEO: Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said Duval County is prepared for any effects the system might bring to Northeast Florida.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As Tropical Storm Elsa began lashing the Florida Keys early Tuesday morning, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said Duval County is prepared for any effects the system might bring to Northeast Florida.

“We’ve been through this a number of times together, unfortunately, over the last few years,” Curry said during an interview Tuesday on The Morning Show.

He said city workers were out over the weekend clearing drainage ditches to help with any potential flooding after consistently heavy rainfall ahead of the tropical storm. Typically, inmates from the Duval County Jail would be called on to help with those projects to provide extra manpower, but current COVID-19 protocols at the jail are preventing them from taking part, Sheriff Mike Williams said.

“We are responsible for the welfare of those inmates and at this point we think it’s best that we limit that exposure of the community at large,” Williams said.

News4Jax spotted city crews in San Marco on Tuesday, pumping water out of drains and removing debris. One worker said they just did this same process a few weeks ago but with the influx of rain the past few days, they needed to come out here and re-pump ahead of Elsa.

“Our city is no stranger to these events, and we’re taking steps to be prepared,” Curry said during a news conference Tuesday, announcing that the western portions of Duval County would be under a tropical storm watch.

In the Springfield area near 9th and Walnut streets, Public Works crews were out clearing a drainage system and vacuuming muck to make sure water will flow after News4Jax featured a woman and her son cleaning up the streets who said their area has been ignored.

“I am very surprised that they actually responded so quickly because like I said, for years we’ve been complaining and complaining and everybody in the neighborhood has been complaining and nothing,” said Joey, the mom who was working to clean up the debris. “It’s like, ‘OK, we’ll get it done,’ and nothing’s ever done.”

Curry urged residents Tuesday not to do the work of the city and asked those with problems to contact the city and let them know.

Mayor Lenny Curry explains what could be expected as crews prepare to embrace storm.

Steve Woodard, the Director of Emergency Preparedness for the city of Jacksonville, recommended moving vehicles in areas prone to flooding to higher ground.

“There is a possibility of flash floods in certain areas due to heavy rains and storm surge,” Curry warned. “If you encounter flooded streets while driving, turn around. Do not drive into high water.”

The Emergency Operations Center in Duval County has been monitoring the storm since before the holiday weekend.

THE LATEST: Tropical Storm Elsa | WHAT TO EXPECT: Forecasting Elsa’s impact on NE Florida and SE Georgia | TRACKING THE TROPICS: Interactive map

“That center is where everybody collaborates from Public Works to our utility to our transportation authority, our public schools, our police department, our fire department, to make sure we’re all in agreement and collaborating,” Curry told TMS. “We’re just asking people to pay attention and be prepared.”

Curry said NO evacuations are expected in the Jacksonville area and at this point, emergency shelters will NOT be opening either.

“But it is a really important reminder for people to know their evacuation zone at JaxReady.com because we are on the front end of hurricane season, and this is a reminder,” Curry said.

Sulzbacher will be opening both its men’s and women’s shelters to allow those without homes to seek shelter indoors overnight both Tuesday and Wednesday, Curry said.

“They will be opening temporary sleeping areas, providing sleeping pallets and blankets for people in need of shelter during the storm,” Curry said. “Women and families seeking shelter can go to Sulzbacher Village at 5455 Springfield Blvd., and men go to Sulzbacher’s downtown campus at 611 East Adams Street.”

Duval County Public Schools is also canceling all student-related summer programs for Wednesday, including Summer Rise, summer school, all summer camps, and all other extracurricular activities. Twelve-month employees should report to work as normal or may take leave according to normal procedures, the district said.

Curry also announced Tuesday that city-run pools and summer camps will also be closed on Wednesday. And the First Coast YMCA said all day camps in Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau, and St. Johns counties will be closed Wednesday and resume Thursday.

FSCJ announced that all classes and operations are proceeding as regularly scheduled for Wednesday. If conditions change, FSCJ Safe alerts and communication will be shared.

Atlantic Beach Mayor Ellen Glasser said of particular concern for the beaches communities will be rip currents and lifeguards will be out patrolling.

“We’ll be monitoring those conditions and so we encourage our residents and visitors to look for those flags. If they go from yellow to red, we strongly discourage people from going into the water,” Glasser said. “Don’t be that guy that we have to go out and rescue.”

Curry said most of the city’s residents should be used to what’s coming but for those who are new to the area, he emphasized knowing your evacuation zone and what you need in your hurricane supply kit.

“The most important thing for me right now is people’s safety, so if you know you’re in an area that can flood, that can have flashfloods, please don’t be out unnecessarily,” Curry said. “If you’re in a medical emergency, dial 911. You can call 630-CITY if you have a non-medical emergency. But let’s just be smart and not be out unnecessarily.”

Curry also offered a reminder not to go near any downed power lines but to report them immediately to the city.

Sheriff Williams also reminded drivers to treat any intersection where the power is out as a four-way stop. At this point, he said, the city doesn’t anticipate closing any of the bridges. That would require 40 mph sustained winds, which are not forecast for our area.

Curry said city offices will remain open and trash will still be picked up on normal schedules.

JEA CEO Jay Stowe said the utility is discontinuing power cutoffs for non-payment from now through Thursday because of the storm. JEA will have crews on standby ready to help other areas if Jacksonville is not hit.

Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, including Fort Caroline National Memorial, Kingsley Plantation, Cedar Point, Theodore Roosevelt Area and Spanish Pond, will be closed as of 5 p.m. Tuesday and won’t reopen until after park personnel assess damage from the storm. Current status will be posted as an alert on the park’s website.

In addition to damaging winds and heavy rains, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center warned of life-threatening storm surges, flooding and isolated tornadoes possible with Elsa. A hurricane watch was issued for a long stretch of coastline, from Egmont Key at the mouth of Tampa Bay to the Steinhatchee River in Florida’s Big Bend area.

Elsa’s maximum sustained winds strengthened to 60 mph early Tuesday. A slow strengthening is forecast through Tuesday night and Elsa could be near hurricane strength before it makes landfall in Florida. Its core was about 50 miles southwest of Key West, Florida, and 270 miles south of Tampa. It was continuing to move to the north-northwest at 12 mph.

Three to 5 inches of rainfall with localized totals of up to 8 inches of rain are expected through Wednesday across the Keys and into southwest and western portions of the Florida Peninsula. The forecast included the possibility of tornadoes across South Florida Tuesday morning and across the upper peninsula later in the day.

Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded a state of emergency to cover a dozen counties where Elsa was expected to make a swift passage on Wednesday, including Alachua and Columbia counties, and President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for the state ahead of the storm.

Forecasters predicted Elsa would hit coastal Georgia and South Carolina after Florida. Georgia's coast was under a tropical storm watch, as was the South Carolina coast from the Mouth of St. Marys River to South Santee River. Forecasters said tornadoes could strike in the eastern Carolinas and Virginia as Elsa moves north.

The storm surge could reach five feet over normally dry land in the Tampa Bay area if Elsa passes at high tide, forecasters said. Commander Col. Ben Jonsson said only essential personnel were being allowed Tuesday morning on MacDill Air Force Base, which is located along the bay on the South Tampa peninsula.

Elsa’s westward shift spared the lower Florida Keys a direct hit, but the islands were still getting plenty of rain and wind on Tuesday. Tropical storm warnings were posted for the Florida Keys from Craig Key westward to the Dry Tortugas and for the west coast of Florida from Flamingo northward to the Ochlockonee River.

Elsa was the first hurricane of the Atlantic season until Saturday morning and caused widespread damage on several eastern Caribbean islands Friday. As a tropical storm, it resulted in the deaths of one person on St. Lucia and of a 15-year-old boy and a 75-year-old woman in the Dominican Republic.

Elsa is the earliest fifth-named storm on record, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.

About the Authors:

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.

This Emmy Award-winning television, radio and newspaper journalist has anchored The Morning Show for 18 years.