Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media outside the National Hurricane Center during a news conference about the status of Hurricane Dorian on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Miami.
As an extremely strong Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas midday Sunday, Gov. Ron DeSantis sounded the alarm over the storm’s historic strength and the impact to Florida’s coast as its track nears the state.
“Pretty much all computer models and all forecasters anticipate this turning north. We just don’t know when exactly it’s going to turn north,” he said at an afternoon briefing at the state’s emergency operations center in Tallahassee. “It absolutely could impact the coast… We’ve got to prepare for that eventuality.”
Hurricane Dorian, as it made landfall, had sustained wind speeds of 185 mph, making it the strongest hurricane to hit the northern Bahamas on record. Forecasters warned the islands could see sustained impacts as the storm slows and stalls over the islands.
The only comparable precedent for Dorian’s strength, DeSantis noted, was the 1935 Labor Day hurricane that hit the Florida Keys — “and that was total, total destruction,” he said.
Assuming a high-profile public role during hurricane preparation is a rite of passage for Florida governors. This is DeSantis’ first.
DeSantis said St. Lucie County will be starting evacuations at 2 p.m. for all areas east of U.S. 1, and that Indian River, Volusia and St. Johns counties are implementing their own evacuation plans. Flagler, Duval and Nassau counties will be announcing plans soon, he said.
He urged all Floridians subject to an evacuation order to heed local authorities’ directions. Hundreds of thousands of Floridians are impacted under evacuation orders in place.
Though DeSantis noted that in some coastal counties those homes comprise beachfront properties that only host residents for part of the year, “nevertheless there [are] going to be folks there who are going to need to evacuate.”
“Do not put your life in jeopardy by staying behind when you have a chance to get out,” he said.
Additional National Guard members have been mobilized ahead of the storm, bringing the total deployed to about 4,400 by Sunday afternoon. A similar number had been activated to help with evacuation efforts ahead of Hurricane Irma in 2017, though eventually all 7,000 members were activated by the time that storm made landfall.
DeSantis said that officials were also planning for “potential search and rescue” and anticipating flooding along the entire east coast.
State health officials had also completed checks of all assisted living facilities and nursing homes in Florida’s eastern coastal counties, DeSantis said, with every facility either having a generator on site or plans to evacuate their residents.
Earlier Sunday afternoon, DeSantis announced he was directing tolls to be suspended on Alligator Alley, SR 528 (Beachline), the Sawgrass Expressway (SR 869) and the Florida Turnpike Mainline (SR 91), including the Homestead Extension (SR 821). After a request from Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, DeSantis said he had also approved suspending tolls on SR 417 and SR 429, which the state Department of Transportation was in the process of putting into place.
Only normal lanes are currently open on major highways, DeSantis said, but “we are monitoring traffic and the shoulders are ready to be opened if need be.”
“Right now the traffic is relatively stable,” he added. “If we end up having backups, then their shoulders will be open. But of course the shoulders bring with it some safety concerns as well.”
Bridge closures, which are determined by the Coast Guard based on wind speed, were not currently planned Sunday afternoon, DeSantis said. “The bridges will remain open for marine and vehicle traffic as long as they can safely be open.”
In an appearance afterward on the Weather Channel, DeSantis said he had turned on The Byrds song “Turn, Turn, Turn” Sunday morning — “because we want this storm to turn.”
“Our message to Floridians is, take action to protect yourself,” he told the Weather Channel. “If you’re in an evacuation zone and you’re told to evacuate it. Do it. This is not a storm to take a chance with.”