By Don Coble
CLAY COUNTY – Less than 90 minutes after the gates opened at the soccer complex at Eagle Harbor, nearly 2,000 sandbags had already been filled by …
CLAY COUNTY – Less than 90 minutes after the gates opened at the soccer complex at Eagle Harbor, nearly 2,000 sandbags had already been filled by residents who took the threats posed by Hurricane Ian seriously.
Unlike many storms from the past, Ian got everyone’s attention.
“We’ve got folks who think they’ve been through a hurricane before,” said Clay County Emergency Management Director John Ward, “but they haven’t.”
The last storm to bring sustained tropical force winds in Clay County was Dora in 1964. Hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Irma 2017 brought a lot of rain and an occasional gust, but Ian is expected to bring sustained tropical winds and rain that could last as long as 24 hours.
The storm was so ominous, county officials took immediate action to better protect the safety of its residents.
Residents with special needs, which includes those living in skilled nursing or assisted living care or with life-sustaining medical equipment, were evacuated to Lake Asbury Junior High at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
At 3 p.m., shelters were opened at Clay, Orange Park and Keystone Heights highs and Wilkinson Elementary. The shelters at Orange Park and Keystone Heights allowed pets.
Residents living in evacuation zones A, B, C and along the North and South Forks of Black Creek were asked to leave since “moderate to heavy” flooding was expected with the storm. And anyone living in a mobile or manufactured home is considered to be in Zone A.
“Also, if you live in a low-lying area, you should evacuate,” Ward said. “If you get flooded in an afternoon thunderstorm, you will be flooded by this.”
Schools, libraries and government offices closed on Wednesday.
Ian formed in the eastern Caribbean on Friday, Sept. 23. It quickly organized into a Tropical Storm and then into a major hurricane before slamming into western Cuba early Tuesday. It gained an enormous amount of energy in the warm Gulf of Mexico, turning into a monster Category 4 storm before turning into the Tampa Bay area on Wednesday.
Northeast Florida started feeling the outer bands on Wednesday, but it got most of the storm’s wrath late Thursday and early Friday.
Green Cove Springs Winn-Dixie store manager Mike Finnick said he noticed a significant change in his customers’ approach on Sunday when they stripped shelves clean of bottled water. He said the company’s bakery was working around the clock to keep up with demands for bread and other essentials.
“I’ve been through a lot of storms,” he said. “This one feels different. You can tell everyone is taking it seriously.”
Ward was pleased many residents were heeding the warning ahead of what could be a devastating storm for the county.
“It’s good people are listening,” he said.
Publix Supermarkets not only had an abundance of bottled water on Monday, but the grocery chain also reduced the price of a gallon of drinking water to just 84 cents.
Around the county, public works crews were busy removing garbage cans from boat launches and parks. At Green Cove Springs, the city hired a tree service company from Kent, Ohio, to remove overgrown and dead branches that could become flying debris.
The county set up five locations where residents could fill as many as 10 sandbags.
“We’re prepared,” said Fleming Island resident Jennifer Stowell. “We’ve done this before. We’ve got sandbags and tarps. We took this seriously because I heard the eastern side of the storm is the ugly side. We wanted to be prepared.”
Stowell was one of 50 residents, including Stowell’s son Isiah and daughter Mattie, filling sandbags at Eagle Harbor early Tuesday.
Ward met with Clay County Fire Rescue acting Chief David Motes and Florida Department of Health Clay County Administrator Heather Huffman on Monday to outline basic services and response. The entire emergency management team was expected to report back to the Clay County Emergency Operations Center on Wednesday.
“I wanted everyone to go home on Tuesday and get some rest and come in ready for the fight on Wednesday,” Ward said.
The group slept at the EOC until Ian’s threat was gone.
That meant organizing urban rescue teams for water rescues, reporting downed powerlines and monitoring the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for minute-by-minute updates. One of the most important functions, Ward said, of emergency management is keeping everyone informed.
“Sign up for updates at alert.claycountygov.com,” Ward said.
The alert system not only kept residents informed during Hurricane Ian, but it also provides heads-up information before a thunderstorm, tornado, flash flood and other evacuation notices.
Information sent out by the Office of Emergency Management also will be reposted at claytodayonline.com.