TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Tolls were suspended Sunday on Florida's Turnpike and other roads in South Florida and Central Florida, as local mandatory evacuation orders started and large portions of the state's East Coast continued to face threats from catastrophic Hurricane Dorian.
With Dorian churning westward Sunday afternoon less than a couple of hundred miles east of West Palm Beach, Gov. Ron DeSantis warned that the "threat is still there" with Dorian now a "Cat 5-plus."
"We are in a situation here where this thing is perilously close to the state," DeSantis said while speaking to reporters at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.
The Florida Department of Transportation announced Monday that tolls in Jacksonville on the I-295 express lanes and First Coast Expressway have also been suspended.
The center of the forecast cone has shifted offshore, with the track running north toward the Carolinas. However, the massively powerful Category 5 storm, brandishing life-threatening 185 mph maximum sustained winds, one of the strongest ever in the Atlantic, is expected to impact Florida's East Coast with heavy rains, strong winds and flooding starting early Monday.
"If you look at the National Hurricane Center's current track, I think it ends up within 30 miles of the coast of Florida," DeSantis said. "Well, guess what, you do just a touch of a bump one way or another and you have a dramatic difference all of a sudden."
Based on information from reconnaissance planes and satellites, Dorian is expected to slow, prolonging its catastrophic effects in the northwest Bahamas, before a turn "northward offshore but very close to the Florida peninsula," according to the National Hurricane Center.
DeSantis acknowledged it is a "somewhat frustrating experience" with the "uncertainty of this thing."
Mandatory evacuation orders had been issued for residents in parts of Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Brevard counties, with the Brevard order taking effect Monday, according to the state Division of Emergency Management website.
The Division of Emergency Management reported nearly 28,000 utility line workers, tree crews and support staff have been staged in the state in advance of the storm.
In anticipation of increased traffic from people evacuating, tolls charges were lifted on Florida's Turnpike, Alligator Alley, the Homestead Extension from the turnpike, the Sawgrass Expressway and the Beachline Expressway.
The state also has been grappling with trying to make sure motorists have access to gasoline.
"We're continuing to monitor the fuel situation, there are not currently fuel shortages," DeSantis said. "I think you've seen a decline in demand for fuel in Miami-Dade (County) based on the change of this cone."
The Florida Department of Transportation said service plazas aren't hurricane shelters and that as the storm approaches, the plaza restaurants and gas stations will be closed.
Speaking Sunday from Washington, D.C, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott urged Floridians not to get complacent with the change in the forecast track and addressed a controversy about the Trump administration's plan to use $271 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Relief Fund for immigration-enforcement actions.
"My biggest concern is people are going to think we're off the hook, we are not off the hook," Scott, who served eight years as governor before moving to the Senate, said while on "Fox News Sunday."
"Overprepare, don't underprepare," Scott said.
While appearing on CNN's "State of the Union," Scott downplayed concerns expressed by some Florida Democrats about the shift of FEMA money.
Scott, who was with President Donald Trump at Camp David this weekend, said that after talking to FEMA and White House officials, they "convinced me there's plenty of money."
Dorian's intensity joined Camille in 1969 and Wilma in 2005 on a list topped by Hurricane Allen, which reached 190 mph sustained winds while crossing the Yucatan Channel in August 1980.
By comparison, Hurricane Andrew, which in 1992 resulted in 44 deaths in Florida, 63,000 destroyed homes and $25.3 billion in damage, peaked at 175 mph.
Michael, which made landfall last October in Northwest Florida with 160 mph sustained winds, caused 35 deaths and more than $6.9 billion in insured property losses and $1.3 billion in agriculture losses in the state.
News Service of Florida