School is open Wednesday, but Matthew shuts down classes Thursday

UPDATE: Miami-Dade schools will be closed Thursday and Friday.

Miami-Dade schools will remain open Wednesday but sports and other after-school activities will probably be scrapped as Hurricane Matthew threatens to bring tropical storm winds to the area as it advances on the East Coast.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said a decision to close schools on Thursday could come as early as Tuesday afternoon, and that his staff is “strongly considering” a shutdown after the last bell on Wednesday to keep students and staff clear of Matthew’s winds. His comments came at a morning press conference when Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the county was expecting winds to stay below hurricane strength in Miami-Dade.

“Right now the message is be prepared for tropical-storm winds on Thursday,” Gimenez said at a press conference after a closed-door briefing with a forecaster from the National Hurricane Center.

With Matthew forecast to stay east of the Miami-Dade coast, Gimenez’s comments highlighted the stakes of the fierce storm not extending a westward trend in future forecasts. If only tropical-storm winds threaten, Miami-Dade would not order coastal residents to evacuate to the mainland.

“We have no evacuation plans at this point,” Gimenez told reporters gathered at the county’s emergency-operations center in Doral. “Should the storm shift to the west, we would have to evacuate certain zones.”

A tropical storm is enough to cancel school, since buses won’t run once winds top 39 mph, the threshold for tropical-storm force winds. Evacuation orders also force closures, since some schools are used as shelters. With childcare a concern for tens of thousands of working parents, Carvalho said the system wants to give as much notice as possible when deciding to shutter schools for a weather emergency.

“We consider very carefully the closure of schools,” he said. “But it may actually create greater havoc in the community.”

He said his staff will decide later Tuesday whether to cancel all of Wednesday’s after-school activities, including night school. The decision to close on Thursday would come either later Tuesday or early Wednesday, he said.

Gimenez used his time before a phalanx of local television cameras to urge residents to prepare Tuesday for a storm expected to arrive Thursday. He said residents should have enough food, water, fuel and cash to be self sufficient for 72 hours. But he noted new generator requirements implemented after the region-wide power outages brought by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 should leave grocery stores and gas stations more able to open for business after a storm. He also reminded residents that hurricanes rarely hurt the public water supply. Miami-Dade no longer routinely distributes water bottles after a storm.

“Unless there is a boil-water order, you can get all the water you want from the tap,” he said. “It’s perfectly great water.”

While the press conference, a media ritual for the approach of a major storm, focused on Miami-Dade preparations, there was considerable attention paid to the storm’s main victim: Haiti. Jean Monestime, the first Haitian American to serve as chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission, urged the public to be ready to help Haiti once the storm passes.

“It’s very difficult to communicate with the people of Haiti right now,” said Monestime, who spent the prior day meeting with Haitian representatives and local Haitian-American business executives and owners. “At this very moment, we encourage you to start making plans to help to respond to the impact that will be felt by Haiti.”

Matthew is the first major hurricane to hit Haiti in decades.

At one point, when asked by a reporter about specifics of the storm damage, Monestime made a slip of the tongue. “We are very focused on what’s happening and how Andrew will be affecting us,” he said, before catching his mistake in using the name of the 1992 Category 5 storm that so devastated Miami-Dade.