ST. PETERSBURG — Less than a year ago, St. Petersburg braced for Hurricane Ian.
The third-costliest weather disaster on record was headed for Tampa Bay before it took a turn and devastated Fort Myers. Mayor Ken Welch traveled there in May and saw what happened to those who did not evacuate.
He said if storm force winds reach 40 mph, police and fire chiefs will make a decision to cut off first responder response and, “you will be on your own.”
“Don’t be one of those people,” Welch said Monday at the emergency operations center inside St. Petersburg police headquarters. “As we saw last year, one turn in that storm can have devastating consequences to our area. So be prepared.”
St. Petersburg’s coastal and low lying areas are under mandatory evacuation as of 7 p.m. Monday. Welch urged residents to respond to evacuations, heed warnings and prepare. He was flanked by the city’s Emergency Manager Amber Boulding, police Chief Anthony Holloway, fire Chief Jim Large and public works Administrator Claude Tankersley.
City Council members Brandi Gabbard and Ed Montanari, whose districts are mostly under evacuation, as well as Copley Gerdes were also present.
“We’ll get through this as a city,” Welch said. “And we’ll see you on the other side of the storm.”
On Monday, Welch signed his first executive order of the year declaring a local state of emergency ahead of Tropical Storm Idalia, which is expected to strengthen into a Category 3 hurricane.
The order went into effect at 11 a.m. The latest update shows the track shifting north, with Pinellas County barely outside the cone of uncertainty. The storm is expected to make landfall Wednesday morning.
Boulding said the emergency operations center will be partially activated Tuesday morning and fully activated Tuesday night, when all shifts will be available for 24/7 operations. The city plans to hold another news conference Tuesday morning.
She likened Tropical Storm Idalia to Hurricane Eta in 2020. She said residents could expect higher winds, downed trees, storm surge and power outages. As a resident in an area under evacuation, she gave a personal message.
“No one can prepare better for your family than you can,” she said, “but the city is right here with you to help you with that preparedness, to help you with that recovery.”
Tankersley urged residents to avoid non-essential water use Tuesday night, and Welch said all lake and pond levels that could be dropped have been lowered to help minimize flooding in neighborhoods.
Duke Energy President Melissa Seixas also spoke at Welch’s news conference. Additional workers from out of state are staged at the Villages and Tropicana Field. She said once the storm passes, crews will begin damage assessment.
Seixas said those who have special needs that rely on electricity need to take moving to another location into “serious consideration.” She also warned people to stay away from heavy vegetation and tree debris once the storm passes.
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“We are prepared and we will restore power as quickly and safely as possible,” Seixas said.
Welch was present at a news conference held earlier Monday at the Pinellas County emergency operations center featuring Gov. Ron DeSantis. At the city’s news conference, he thanked county officials, the governor and Duke Energy.
Boulding said DeSantis has pre-positioned resources across the state, including high-water vehicles, fuel, crews and 5,000 National Guard personnel.
“It is game time and we are prepared to keep our city safe through this storm,” he said.
Mandatory Zone A evacuations
Pinellas County has issued a mandatory evacuation beginning at 7 p.m. Monday for residents living in mobile homes countywide and residents who live in Zone A. That includes the St. Petersburg neighborhoods of Edgemoor, Snell Isle, Shore Acres, Coquina Key, Riviera Bay, Gandy, Maximo, Broadwater, parts of Bartlett Park and some of the pink streets in Pinellas Point.
According to the county’s website, mandatory evacuations are issued when the probability of storm surge is high and loss of life could occur if residents don’t leave. It is illegal to stay in a home under a mandatory evacuation order. Refusal to follow an evacuation order is a second-degree misdemeanor.
Holloway said the police and fire departments will be going to A and B zones telling residents to evacuate.
“Tonight is really giving everybody a chance to prepare,” he said. “So tomorrow morning get all your belongings and then go to the shelter and make sure you’re taking care of yourself and your family.
Pinellas County will open 10 shelters at 7 a.m. Tuesday. Four of those are in St. Petersburg:
- Special needs shelter: John Hopkins Middle School, 701 16th St. S.
- Pets shelter: Gibbs High School, 850 34th St. S.
- Campbell Park Elementary School, 1051 7th Ave. S.
- New Heights Elementary School, 3901 37th St. N.
Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses will begin offering free rides beginning 7 a.m. Tuesday.
Boulding said fire department workers are making calls to residents with special needs who have pre-registered as needing assistance with evacuations to arrange rides. She said those pickups will begin at 7 a.m. Tuesday. Pinellas County School Board buses and some city vans and wheelchair buses will be used.
City spokesperson Erica Riggins said since late Friday afternoon, the city distributed 20,000 sandbags, which are available year-round and not just before a hurricane. Sandbag distribution will stop at 7 p.m. on Monday. Find out more information on sandbags here.
Trash and recycling
Trash was due to be picked up Monday as originally scheduled. Trash and recycling pickups scheduled for Tuesday are planned until further notice. City officials ask to make sure cans are secured after pickup so they aren’t blown away by storm winds.
Tankersley, the public works administrator, asked residents to avoid any non-essential water use Tuesday night to minimize impact on the stormwater operating system.
“If you have close you need to wash dishes you need to wash please go ahead and do those today,” he said.
Tankersley said his team has been working all weekend long since Friday to prepare. He said several ponds with pump stations on them have been pumped down to provide as much storage as possible. He said the city has also removed any debris from grates and pipes.
City Hall, city offices and facilities will be closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. All city recreation facilities will be closed with programming canceled Tuesday through Wednesday.
The St. Pete Pier, Sunken Gardens and municipal marina are all closed Tuesday. Welch said team members are securing vessels at the marina and aircraft at Albert Whitted Airport.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.