TAMPA — More than 9,200 people have evacuated to 42 Hillsborough County shelters, County Administrator Mike Merrill said late Saturday afternoon. Almost 400 residents are now at special needs shelters, which are filling fast.
"If you're going to go to a shelter, the time is now to go," said Preston Cook, the county's director for emergency management.
The county can still open more shelters if neede, he said.
Anybody can flag a HART bus to take them to an open shelter until dusk Saturday, said HART CEO Katharine Eagan, who implored anybody who would need transportation to seek it immediately.
"We cannot guarantee that we will have a bus tomorrow," Eagan said.
The majority of Tampa Electric Co. customers could lose power after the storm, president Gordon Gillette said. He expects 300,000 to 500,000 outages out of about 700,000 customers.
Gillette warned that the company may need to force rotating blackouts before the storm. In that case, customers could see their power go out for a few minutes and then come back on. Before the storm hits, customers should not report power outages until they last at least 15 minutes.
He said the two TECO plants on the water — H.L. Culbreath Bayside Power Station and Big Bend Power Station — have storm surge doors that should protect the plants against flooding up to 18 feet.
Cook advised those evacuating to find friends or family close by, rather than attempting to drive long distances on highways. "We're not asking you to go hundreds of miles. We're asking you to go tens of miles," he said. There are already 183 people with special needs and disabilities at special needs shelters in the county, Merrill said.
Cook said the county has responded to disabled people registered with the county, but anybody who has not yet evacuated can head to a special needs shelter if they qualify. "At this point, if you haven't registered, and if you're in Zone A, you can still go to those special needs shelters that are open now, and you can get assessed on scene and granted access," Cook said.
The evacuation zones are designated by storm surge threat, he said, because storm surge is typically the most dangerous hurricane effect. He said residents need to consider the potential wind damage to mobile homes or manufactured homes, no matter their evacuation zone.
Hillsborough Fire Rescue Chief Dennis Jones said extra staff are on call for search and rescue teams throughout the county, but when the winds pick up, there will be a period when they cannot respond to calls for service.
Jones said when the winds get faster than 50 mph, HCFR will not respond to calls. Dispatchers will read from a script, telling residents that help will come when it's safe again. The agency dispersed additional boats throughout the county over the past couple days, Jones said.
"I've lived here all my life. This is the worst storm the state will face," Jones said. Buses are driving up and down evacuation routes, taking anybody to shelters for free today until 7 p.m., said Katherine Eagan, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority CEO.
Anyone, even if they're not standing at a bus stop, can flag down a HART bus, she said. They'll be out tomorrow as well, she said, but only until wind speeds reach 39 miles per hour. "Don't take too long," she pleaded.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-Tampa, St. Petersburg) told his constituents to avoid underestimating the storm.
Those in mandatory evacuation zones should not try to be "brave," Rouson said. "Follow the decisions, the instructions of the law enforcement professionals, of the emergency professionals. When they tell you to evacuate, evacuate. Mandatory means mandatory," Rouson said. "If you haven't yet, please go."
Merrill said that at this point, he's most afraid of the storm becoming even more powerful. "I think the biggest fear is that the winds continue to mount, and the storm surge is greater than we expected.
My other fear is that we don't get people moved to the shelters quickly enough," he said.
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Contact Langston Taylor at [email protected] Follow @langstonitaylor.