BOCC issues non-mandatory evacuation order

Gainesville historical marker in front of City Hall
Photo by Seth Johnson

Although the predicted path for Hurricane Ian keeps shifting, the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) approved on Tuesday an evacuation order for residents living in mobile homes, manufactured homes, RVs and in other at-risk areas. 

 “I know a lot of people probably breathed a sigh of relief with the forecast shifting east, but our local probability of experiencing significant winds has actually gone up since we started to see the shift eastward,” Jen Grice, director of Alachua County emergency management, told the BOCC at their midday meeting. 

The order is currently not mandatory, which means there is not an enforcement mechanism, but county officials are encouraging people in homes that are vulnerable to wind damage or flooding to seek shelter elsewhere. 

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 “We’re doing an evacuation that is not mandatory right now,” County Attorney Sylvia Torres said at the meeting. “It certainly could be ramped up to mandatory at some point.” 

At a Gainesville telephone town hall meeting Tuesday evening, Mayor Lauren Poe said that while area leaders can’t completely predict the local impact of Hurricane Ian, they are expecting the rainfall to be worse than during 2017’s Hurricane Irma. 

“We do expect at least tropical storm force winds in Gainesville, and we expect a significant amount of water,” Poe said.  

The rainfall is predicted to be a minimum of 7 inches, but could be up to 11 to 12 inches, Poe said. 

“We’re going to see flooding. We’re going to see road closures,” Poe said.  “Even if we do not get hurricane or even tropical storm force winds for sustained amounts of time, it’s still going to be very, very dangerous out there.” 

Wind speed will determine when the city will shut down certain services, the mayor said. The Regional Transit System (RTS) will start a reduced service schedule on Wednesday. And once wind speeds reach 30 mph, the city’s bus drivers will be told to finish their routes and return to base.  

At a sustained 35 mph, other city personnel including Gainesville Fire Rescue, Gainesville Police Department, and Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) will begin sheltering in place and will return to work only once the winds go back to safe levels, Poe said. 

As Torres told the BOCC, “There is a point in almost all of these events when we take our emergency vehicles off the road, the sheriff takes his emergency vehicles off the road, and people are on their own, if they stay put.” 

Residents who need to evacuate will have to do so before it becomes unsafe to travel, county officials said. 

The county has opened four emergency shelters: one for people with special needs, two that are pet friendly, and one that is a people-only shelter. 

“If you need shelter, and you do not feel safe where you are, please make plans to visit one of these shelters,” Poe said during the town hall meeting. “There will be space for everybody.” 

County Manager Michele Lieberman said the county will make other shelters available if the current shelters hit between 70-80% capacity. 

At its meeting Tuesday, the BOCC also authorized up to $5 million in emergency spending for preparation and post-hurricane needs.  

At the Gainesville telephone town hall, several residents asked questions about garbage and yard waste pickup as well as questions about how Hurricane Ian could affect water, wastewater and electrical services. 

Gainesville residents who have Wednesday trash service should put out their garbage and recycling for an earlier-than-usual pickup, but Thursday pickups have already been canceled.  

“[Thursday is] going be the teeth of the storm,” Poe said. “And so not only would it not be safe for all of our waste haulers, but it also would put a bunch of potentially deadly projectiles out there.” 

The mayor said unlike some Florida cities, GRU does not expect to shut down water service to the city. 

“We are very proud that in the history of GRU, with all the storms we’ve had, our water system has never gone down,” Poe said. “We don’t want to be too cocky about that… but we’re pretty confident that our water system will function throughout the storm.” 

However, storm-related power outages can affect the functioning of the city’s wastewater system, and residents were asked not to do laundry during the storm and to minimize showers and toilet flushing while power was out. 

“The less burden we place on our wastewater system, the less likely it is to not only back up for you but for all of your neighbors and that can really make a big difference,” Poe said. 

After the wind speeds die down, GRU and other city workers will be working 24/7 to restore services, Poe said. 

Tony Cunningham, the GRU interim general manager, told the town hall audience that GRU prioritizes power restoration to essential services like hospitals, nursing homes, police and fire stations after a storm then they work on restoring power to large groups of homes then finally individual homeowners without power. 

“There is a rhyme and a reason to how we restore,” Poe said. “So just be patient.” 

After the storm has passed, the mayor also reminded listeners not to try and cross flooded streets. 

“It’s a great way to get stranded,” he said. “And it might be that nobody can get out there to help you and extract you from that situation.” 

With reporting from Seth Johnson. 

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The term “mandatory” is fairly relative, they really should try to come up with a better indicator of what it means. A lot of people might react differently if they’re not just told it’s “mandatory” to evacuate.