No mandatory Hurricane Dorian evacuations in South Florida yet. But decide on leaving soon

Gov. DeSantis holds briefing on Hurricane Dorian

Governor Ron DeSantis holds a press conference at the State Emergency Operations Center on Friday, August 30, 2019.
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Governor Ron DeSantis holds a press conference at the State Emergency Operations Center on Friday, August 30, 2019.

With Hurricane Dorian still days away from wreaking havoc on the coast of Florida, many local governments on Friday afternoon had yet to order evacuations from vulnerable areas.

Still, if you’re planning to leave, experts say to get moving as soon as possible.

The storm, gathering strength in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean, was slowly headed toward the state’s east coast and is targeting a wide swath stretching from the Florida Keys to Jacksonville. But because Dorian, as of 11 a.m., appeared headed toward a heavily populated area near Palm Beach County, traffic may soon get clogged.

“You don’t have a lot of choices. You’ve got to go north,” said Eren Erman Ozguven, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Florida State University. “It’s a decision people have to make earlier, rather than waiting for mandatory evacuations.”

It remained unclear Friday how extensive evacuations would be. Emergency managers said they were waiting for weather authorities to issue warnings, and the evacuation orders would come within the next 24 hours.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, at a press conference, said residents with special needs will be evacuated to storm shelters beginning Saturday. About 900 people have signed up so far, he said.

The county will decide on a general evacuation order during the weekend, Gimenez said.

“It can come here, it can go further north, it could go offshore, and so we don’t want to issue evacuation orders prematurely,” Gimenez said at a press conference Friday. “We want to make sure that when we do that,we have the best information possible.”

He added that the county will analyze the storm’s track, its anticipated strength as well as storm surge maps and flooding projections. “We’ll have better information as time goes by,” he said.

Emergency management authorities usually order people to leave coastal zones, low-lying areas and trailer homes. Gov. Ron DeSantis, at an afternoon press conference, said shoulders on Interstate 95 had already been cleared, so they can be opened to traffic when evacuation orders are issued.

“If you’re in an evacuation zone and ordered to evacuate, please do so,” DeSantis said. “Put your safety first. Better to evacuate and it not end up hitting you than to remain in there and end up being in jeopardy.”

Two years ago, Hurricane Irma hit the Florida Keys, but the wide swath of the state it targeted caused gridlock up and down the state. It was no surprise to emergency planners, who have seen Florida’s runaway development and population growth complicate plans for evacuations.

During Irma, highways backed up for hours as people fled north. State transit authorities were unwilling to change the direction of lanes because emergency vehicles and supplies needed to keep heading south toward the storm.

Evacuation from Dorian was no longer an option for Miami lawyer Rebecca DiMeglio, who on Friday couldn’t find any flights to the Northeast, where she has family. Driving? No way, she said.

“I don’t want to drive and have issues fueling up when I get low on gas since the entire state is preparing at the same time,” she said. “I don’t want a repeat of Irma, where it became a mass exodus and everyone was trapped on the highways.”

Instead, DiMeglio bought batteries, gas, water and canned goods to tough it out with everyone else.

Up in Broward, County Mayor Mark Bogen said his officials are waiting “until we know exactly which way the storm is going.”

“I think in 24 hours we will have a better idea as to know when the shelters will open,” Bogen said.

“The shelters are not open. We have not even been given a watch by the National Weather Service. Normally the National Weather Service first will give a watch, then a warning. We haven’t even been given a watch yet. We expect soon we will have a date when the shelters will be open.”