TAMPA — The city of Tampa ordered a mandatory evacuation effective 2 p.m. Friday for residents, hotels and motels, high-rise buildings, people with special needs and those living in mobile or manufactured housing in the low-lying Evacuation Zone A.
Despite the order, Tampa officials said they were not forcing guests who have already checked into hotels in Zone A to leave. How that decision is handled will be up to the guests and hotels themselves.
"The recommendation has been made, but it falls on the hotels how they're going to execute that," Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Jason Penny said.
By Friday afternoon, Hillsborough County officials had not ordered any mandatory evacuations for areas outside the city.
The only evacuation orders by the county were for special needs residents in Evacuation Zone A. The order for a voluntary evacuation was issued Thursday afternoon.
The voluntary evacuation will be expanded to the county's entire Zone A starting at 8 a.m. Saturday, said Preston Cook, the county's emergency management director, during a briefing with reporters Friday afternoon. That includes residents in mobile homes throughout the county. All residents in those areas are "strongly encouraged" to evacuate.
Hillsborough County's approach differs from places such as Pinellas County, where officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for coastal areas and other places vulnerable to storm surge. Several counties in south Florida also issued mandatory evacuations.
Cook said the voluntary evacuation orders in Hillsborough were issued based on five to seven feet of storm surge that the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center said the county is expected to receive. That could change if the forecast track shifted.
"We're watching the storm hour by hour to make sure we're in the right posture for the storm," Cook said. "We're not expecting to see the water in terms of storm surge from this particular storm. If that changes, all bets are off. Listen for changes in the track and from us in terms of additional actions."
With wind gusts that could reach 100 mph or more, Cook said, it's "highly recommended" that mobile home residents throughout the county find a more sturdy place to ride out the storm.
Tampa officials said they issued their order in anticipation of high winds expected across the city and potential storm surge that may occur along the city's coastal areas. They could not immediately say how many people in Zone A would be affected by the order.
"We're hopeful that the surge, because we're on the back side of the storm, will not be that significant but we've got to prepare, particularly for those senior citizens and folks that have infirmities that would cause them to be harm's way," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said a midday news conference with Gov. Rick Scott at the Hillsborough County Public Safety Operations Complex in Tampa.
Hillsborough County opened two shelters exclusively for special needs evacuees on Friday at Strawberry Crest High School and the SunDome at the University of South Florida.
The county plans to open 14 more shelters at 8 a.m. Saturday for residents from Zone A as well as evacuees from other Florida counties who have been unable to find a place to stay elsewhere.
If you decide to stay at a shelter, officials said, be sure to bring proper identification, money and any medicines you need.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he didn't think residents needed to go far away, just somewhere in the city not so close to the coast.
"Go find somebody you can stay with for a few hours, especially Sunday morning," he said. His wife and daughters were clearing out of their home on Davis Islands for refuge elsewhere in the city. "You do not have to go to Georgia to be safe."
As of Friday morning, the city had given out more than 70,000 sand bags and ran out but was expecting more to arrive around noon.
"There's a big demand; it's unprecedented," Buckhorn said. Still, he said he expects flooding mainly in areas that typically see standing water after a big storm. "I don't think the storm surge is going to be catastrophic like it's going to be on the east coast."
He had one more piece of advice.
"Look out for your neighbor," he said. "Be a great Floridian."
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