PUNTA GORDA — With Hurricane Irma off Florida's southwest coast Sunday — and with Charlotte County in the storm's cross hairs later this afternoon — officials here begged residents who stayed behind to take shelter and assured them community leaders were ready to begin assessment and recovery as soon as it's safe.
"Get ready, the storm is upon us now," warned County Administrator Ray Sandrock.
"Just wait this out," said Gerard Mallet, the county's emergency management director. No more driving, he implored.
The recovery will start with "the push," Mallet said. That's when public works and Florida Power & Light personnel clear the main roads and work back to critical centers like hospitals, sheriff's office and police stations and fire houses, clearing the way for emergency crews to get to residents.
In the meantime, 911 call-takers are doing triage on incoming calls, organizing them from most critical to least. That way, when the weather conditions allow for safe response, fire and rescue teams know who needs their help first.
But until it's safe for emergency workers, residents are on their own.
"If we get hurt, we get killed, we can't help you," Charlotte Sheriff Bill Prummel said.
For those residents who didn't leave and find themselves in need of help: "I'm sorry, but you made that choice," the sheriff said.
The hope, though, is that most residents have either left the area or found shelter. About two-thirds of the 160,000 people in the county were ordered to evacuate.
Charlotte County housed more than 3,000 people between its two shelters, and neighboring Sarasota and Lee counties were accepting Charlotte residents.
The low-lying county had more shelters on its list, but as the storm surge concern grew and more evacuations were ordered, some of those shelters in flood zones had to be consolidated.
For residents who have left, Prummel had another message: Don't rush back. The storm will likely last until Monday morning, and even after, road conditions will still be dangerous.
For example, it's impossible to tell by looking at a downed power line if it is carrying electricity.
"We can recover, we can rebuild," he said. "But I can't bring you back to life."