"Right now, we are not in the storm surge, which is important. We're hoping for the best and preparing for the worst."
As Hurricane Irma rumbles toward Northwest Florida, emergency management personnel have been working around the clock to prepare and share weather updates with the public.
According to the National Weather Service, Walton County is under tropical storm warnings, while offshore waters near Pensacola are also under tropical storm warnings. Northwest Florida is under a wind advisory through 7 p.m. Monday, but the worst of the storm is expected to be between noon and 2 p.m., said Ryan Rogers, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mobile.
"Things will start to calm down by 2 p.m. or so," he said. "It should pass through by sunset."
Although a big storm surge is not expected in the Gulf, forecasters expect high winds and heavy rain. Louis Svehla, public information officer for Walton County, said officials have been monitoring the storm and preparing for sustained winds of 39 to 74 miles per hour and up to 4 inches of rain. Rain and wind are expected to be less severe in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties, which should be further west from the hurricane's eye.
"We have issued a voluntary evacuation for people who are in campers, mobile homes or any structures where they don't feel safe," he added. "Right now, we are not in the storm surge, which is important. We're hoping for the best and preparing for the worst."
After swirling through the Caribbean, Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida Sunday morning at Cudjoe Key as a Category 4 hurricane. Rogers said the storm should do the most damage to the Gulf side of the peninsula as it heads north. NWS does not anticipate any tornado, flash flood or surge issues in the Northwest Florida area. However, residents should consistently check credible local government, news or weather sources in case the forecast changes.
"We should see winds 25 to 30 miles per hour which are not that out of the ordinary," Rogers said. "Listen to local officials and try not to panic."
According to the National Weather Service weekly forecast, Santa Rosa County may see wind gusts as high as 45 miles per hour. In Okaloosa County, wind gusts could reach 50 miles per hour. Both counties may see up to 2 inches of rainfall.
Freeport High School is the host shelter in Walton County. As of Sunday afternoon, 88 people, two of which had special needs, and 16 pets have taken refuge. In Santa Rosa County, there are 114 evacuees from South Florida in shelters along with 40 pets. Okaloosa County has opened up Shoal River Middle School as a shelter for evacuees, but has no plans to conduct evacuations. Additionally, there are no plans to close any bridges or roadways according to the latest update from Okaloosa County.
Santa Rosa County is not expected to see significant effects, but officials are still updated information and alerts.
"Florida SERT (State Emergency Response Team) and NOAA/National Hurricane Center have been sharing the latest forecast data with us in a very timely manner so getting the information we need to make informed decisions is working as it should," said Brandi Whitehurst, public information for Santa Rosa County.
Alongside county workers, law enforcement, fire departments and even citizen volunteers are part of the emergency management efforts. In Walton County, volunteers are working rotating eight-hour shifts taking calls and helping the county with social media updates. The Santa Rosa County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) has about 40 volunteers. Whitehurst said that volunteers are very important in times of disaster, but she said people should not "self deploy."
"There is typically a coordinated appeal for volunteers after the storm has passed through the Red Cross and faith-based volunteer organizations," she said via email. "The main area needed for pre-storm arrival is sheltering, the post storm arrival list could include tasks ranging from clean-up operations, point of distribution staffing (like for water or MREs), Disaster Recovery Center staffing and cleaning out homes affected by floodwaters."