Officials plan for Irma

OKEECHOBEE — As Hurricane Irma draws a bead on Florida, local officials are busily making plans to provide the local citizenry with current information to help keep them safe and make informed decisions.

“If people don’t feel their home is safe for a potential category 4 or 5 storm and they feel they need to get out of town — then get out of town,” offered Mitch Smeykal, emergency management director for Okeechobee County.

“Everybody needs to make preparation for a major hurricane strike. If your home is well constructed, you should be OK.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 5, Irma was classified as a category 5 hurricane with winds of 180 miles per hours. The forecast track of the monster storm was still uncertain.

And, it’s that uncertainty that’s making things difficult for Mr. Smeykal and Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen.

“Until a track really firms up, that will determine our course of action,” noted Mr. Smeykal.

Both Mr. Smeykal and Sheriff Stephen will be in on a team meeting to be held Wednesday, Sept. 6, at 9 a.m. The meeting will help disseminate information on the storm and form a plan of action. That team is made up of officials from the law enforcement community as well as local fire departments and other city and county officials.

As of Tuesday afternoon no evacuation orders had been given, except for Monroe County. There, all non-residents were under a mandatory evacuation order. Sheriff Stephen said a similar order will be issued for residents of that county sometime Wednesday.

“Our biggest concern is planning for the people evacuating and coming through town. There will be a lot of northbound traffic,” said the sheriff, who cautioned those leaving their homes to know what direction the storm is headed.

“If you don’t know what direction it will take, you could very well be driving into its path,” he offered.

As for deputies and other employees of the sheriff’s office, they could well be in for a very long weekend. But, before that, they are all instructed to see to it their families are safe.

“We’ll have our folks take care of each other until the weekend. Then, it will be time to take care of the county,” said Sheriff Stephen. “First and foremost, they need to take care of their families.

“We don’t want to create a pandemonium, but we have to be concerned. We have to be prepared and take care of our families,” he added.

By the weekend deputies, dispatchers and detectives will be working 12-hour shifts. They’ll continue in that mode until it is safe to return to their normal work schedules.

But once winds reach 35 miles per hour, deputies will park their patrol vehicles and will no longer be on the road. However, if a citizen calls in with a problem deputies may have to respond.

“If we get a call for service we’ll prioritize the call and if it’s a risk (to the citizens) we will respond. We will become reactive, based on priority,” noted the sheriff.

As for his employees, some will be staying in the sheriff’s office while some deputies will stay in the Emergency Operations Center and some may be sent to shelters.

“Some will stay in their residences that are high and dry,” said the sheriff.

As for shelters, neither man could pinpoint just when they would open.

“We’ll probably open shelters Thursday or Friday — maybe Saturday,” said Mr. Smeykal.

Sheriff Stephen agreed and pointed out that shelters cannot be opened too quickly.

“If we open them too early then evacuees from other counties could fill the shelters before our local citizens,” he noted.

Mr. Smeykal went on to offer a word of caution to those folks living on or near the Rim Canal.

“We may get some surge from this thing if it comes up the center of the state,” he said, adding there is the potential for that canal to overflow. “Run from the water, hide from the wind. Water is what kills people.”

When asked about rain totals, Mr. Smeykal said Tuesday afternoon that it was too early to tell. He hoped to have a better handle on that by late Wednesday morning.

Sheriff Stephen also pointed out prisoners being held in the Okeechobee County Jail will remain there. He said shutters will be put on the windows of the 32-year-old structure and the generator is fueled up and ready to go.

When the storm finally arrives, both men will be in their respective offices to monitor its effect and to dole out information to the public.

“I will be in this office the whole time,” offered the sheriff, adding that he will likely sleep on the floor of his office.

Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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