Thousands of Walton County residents are being urged to leave their homes ahead of Wednesday’s expected arrival of Hurricane Michael.
At 5 p.m. Monday, the county issued a mandatory evacuation notice for three of its five evacuation zones.
“That’s basically the entirety of South Walton,” said county spokesman Louis Svehla.
At a county meeting held shortly before noon Monday, Jeff Goldberg, Walton County’s Emergency Management director, discussed plans to issue a mandatory evacuation for zones A and B, which cover the county’s coastline, Choctawhatchee Bay and its bayous, and areas along tributaries north and east of the bay.
The actual notice, however, also included Zone C, an area encompassing everything between the Gulf of Mexico and the Bay.
Svehla said the strengthening of Hurricane Michael as it moves through the Gulf toward Northwest Florida and discussion of a significant storm surge, now estimated between 7 and 9 feet, influenced the county decision to add Zone C.
“It’s important for us to provide the highest level of safety possible,” he said.
The path of the hurricane remains uncertain, but most projections have Michael making landfall east of Walton County early Wednesday as a Category 2 or 3 storm. Svehla said it is yet unknown what kind of winds the storm will pack or how long it will hover once it comes ashore.
“Hopefully it will move fast like it is now, as opposed to becoming a slow-moving storm,” he said.
Residents appeared to be reacting stoically to news of the mandatory evacuation.
“To me, it seems somewhat controlled. Everybody is being responsible,” said Kitty Whitney, executive director of Sandestin Real Estate. “The general manager of the resort just announced to our team to follow our emergency procedures. … Thank goodness we have a very refined planned to make sure everybody stays safe and that our guests are informed and have knowledge on what to do.”
At the morning meeting, Goldberg said the county TDC was reporting that travelers were canceling plans to visit the county’s beaches and tourists already in town were making plans to leave.
“I believe, with all the fall tourists here, it (the evacuation order) is a prudent move,” said Dave Rauschkolb, the owner of Seaside’s Bud and Alley’s Restaurant. “We are leaving early. No fun living without power, either, if it is a bad storm power could be out up to two weeks.”
The mandatory evacuation order notifies residents that public safety officials will not risk lives to respond to emergency calls in seriously affected areas. Response times could be delayed for days, it said.
“Utilities, including electricity, water and phone service could be damaged and unavailable for extended periods of time,” it said.
Freeport High School was scheduled to open as an emergency shelter at 7 a.m., Tuesday. The shelter will welcome the general population, including special needs residents, Svehla said. It is also pet friendly.
Svehla emphasized though, that the high school is intended to be a shelter of last resort and those who can find a safe place to weather the storm should do so.
Notice of the mandatory evacuation has been posted on social media and with the local media, Svehla said. News alerts are available via alertwalton.org.