“The track has shifted slightly east, which means the chances of us getting any effects or getting the storm has decreased slightly."

Although not out of the woods yet, Northwest Florida residents were growing cautiously optimistic Wednesday that Hurricane Irma would not directly impact the area.

However, several grocery stores were still out of water and long lines were forming at gas stations as residents remained leery of any potential shifts in the storm’s path. Some people also were preparing to host evacuees who were running from Irma.

“I just came to get water and supplies because I’m hosting family from South Florida,” Jodie Standifer said as she was leaving a grocery store on Beal Parkway in Fort Walton Beach. “They’re coming here 'cause they’re going to get hit pretty bad.”

But Jane Hollingsworth, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, warned that even after the hurricane loses strength after traveling up the Florida peninsula, it could still hit north Florida as a massive storm.

“The current estimate is that if it does hit southern Florida and then it starts to track up, either up the spine of Florida or one side or the other, is that it would start to weaken, but probably not until it gets to central-northern Florida, to potentially a Category 3,” Hollingsworth said. “It's not going to be weakening extremely rapidly.”

Walton County Emergency Management Director Jeff Goldberg said residents should remain cautious of the storm’s trajectory.

“The track has shifted slightly east, which means the chances of us getting any effects or getting the storm has decreased slightly,” Goldberg said Wednesday morning. “But as we know from previous storms, particularly Hurricane Charley, these things could swing at the last minute.”

Hurricane Charley formed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2004 before it entered the Gulf of Mexico and appeared to head for the Tampa Bay area. However, after rapidly gaining strength in the Gulf, Charley quickly shifted paths and made landfall in the Port Charlotte area instead, catching several thousand residents unprepared.

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“We are still very much keeping an eye on (Irma),” Goldberg said. “We haven’t decreased our operational tempo, and we’re still doing our conference calls (with state emergency officials) and our partner agencies, as well as keeping an eye on supplies in the stores and fuel throughout the county.”

Goldberg said he also is preparing to potentially open shelters in Walton County to evacuees should state emergency officials request that of him.

In Okaloosa county, Public Safety Director Alvin Henderson said he was also monitoring the storm and would prepare to make calls about the storm as necessary.

“Currently, we are continuing to monitor the model reports from the track of Irma that we get from the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center,” Henderson said. “All indications are presently that the track keeps on trending towards the east, so that’s what we are looking at currently.

Still, Henderson said there was always the possibility the storm could change course completely.

“There’s still the potential that the storm does what it wants to do, not what the models tell it to do, and we don’t want to drop our guard,” he said.   

Reservists with the Army National Guard’s 870th Engineer Company (Sapper) based in Crestview were on standby Wednesday afternoon.

“We're pretty much ready to rock and roll and help our communities,” said an individual who answered the phone at the Crestview National Guard Armory. “We're ready to support our community in any way we can.”

Local animal shelters also were preparing to move their animals regardless of whether or not the storm hits Northwest Florida. Dee Thompson, director of the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society, said the shelter would evacuate as many of its dogs and cats as possible to shelters up north to make room for animals from south and central Florida. Alaqua Animal Refuge in Freeport also was planning to evacuate its animals because the main refuge is in a flood zone.

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