Pinellas County Commissioners declared a State of Local Emergency and issued mandatory evacuation orders Monday as Tropical Storm Idalia approached the Gulf of Mexico.
Forecasters anticipate Idalia becoming a hurricane later today. Pinellas and its municipalities are now under a hurricane and storm surge warning.
Local officials expect a “life-threatening storm surge” and tropical storm force winds to reach the area around 7 p.m. Tuesday and persist through Wednesday morning. The emergency declaration enables County Administrator Barry Burton to quickly approve expenditures and issue evacuation orders.
“When we make that call, we need people to heed that warning,” Burton said. “That’s the time when we really have to start to begin to move. It takes us 17 hours to do the clearance necessary for a Level A evacuation.”
That countdown began at 1 p.m. as county officials implemented a mandatory Zone A evacuation of coastal and low-lying areas. The order takes effect at 7 p.m. Monday and includes mobile homes throughout Pinellas.
According to the National Hurricane Center’s (NHC) 11 a.m. update, forecasters expect Idalia to rapidly intensify before making landfall Tuesday night into Wednesday morning as a Category 3 with winds topping 120 mph. The anticipated track spans from Tampa Bay to the Big Bend area of the Florida Panhandle.
According to the evacuation announcement, Idalia “is expected to bring worse impacts than Hurricane Eta in 2020.” Current forecasts predict a local storm surge between four and seven feet.
Cathie Perkins, county emergency management director, said the surge forecast does not account for high tides or wave activity. She also noted that the area could receive between six and 10 inches of rainfall.
“If you live in a neighborhood where there’s sunny day flooding on your streets when we have those high tides, you need to be thinking that you are going to have some flooding in your home,” Perkins said. “People should be looking at elevating items and their valuables in their homes, turning off their power and gas, unplugging major appliances and making sure that they’ve got their insurance information.
“This storm is expected to be a Category 3 storm only 80 miles off of our coast. As we saw with Hurricane Ian last year, it was a 20-mile shift as the storm came off of Cuba that made the difference between us and Lee County getting the storm.”
The evacuation order also encompasses residential healthcare facilities. County officials will open a special needs shelter at 7 p.m. Monday inside John Hopkins Middle School, at 701 16th St. S. in St. Petersburg.
They encourage evacuees to stay nearby with family, friends or at a hotel outside Zones A and B. As of press time, access to barrier islands remained open.
With hurricane shelters activated, all Pinellas County Schools (PCS) and offices will close Tuesday and Wednesday. Sports and after-school activities are also canceled until Thursday.
District officials will send recorded phone and email updates to families and employees. They will also post information to the PCS website.
Mayor Ken Welch declared a Local State of Emergency Monday afternoon, and the city will stop distributing sandbags at all sites after 7 p.m. For more information, visit the website here.
Two county sandbag distribution sites, in Seminole and Palm Harbor, will remain open until 6 p.m. for unincorporated residents with proper identification. For more information, visit the website here.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) plans to suspend all services at 5 p.m. Tuesday – or when sustained winds reach 40 mph. The agency will not charge fares on any routes tomorrow to assist with evacuations.
St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport will close at 3 p.m. Tuesday. Tampa International Airport will suspend commercial operations at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, with all air traffic ceasing by 7 a.m. tomorrow.
Emergency declaration protects residents from price gouging. Business owners who sharply increase prices on essential commodities – like food, water, shelter, ice, gasoline and lumber – are now subject to fines of $1,000 per violation.
Residents who suspect price gouging can call Pinellas County Consumer Protection at (727) 464-6200.