Hurricane Dorian crawled up central Florida’s Atlantic coast early Wednesday as a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained wind speeds of 110 mph and hurling "life-threatening" storm surges of up to 7 feet in low-lying areas.
But after Dorian devastated the northern Bahamas as a record-setting Category 5 monster, killing seven people and leaving dozens stranded, Florida officials were exhaling in relief that — as of early Wednesday, anyway – it appeared most of the state had dodged the disaster forecasters warned could unfold if it made landfall along the I-95 corridor.
Regardless, some residents of Florida northeastern coast faced mandatory evacuations as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order Wednesday morning expanding the state of emergency to 21 counties.
Aside from scattered reports of structural damage, beach erosion, tornadic squalls and power outages – more than 7,000 in total as of Wednesday morning, with the majority in Brevard and Indian River counties – the storm was keeping its distance about 100 miles off the coast.
Nevertheless, the National Hurricane Center was projecting Dorian would pass “dangerously close" to Florida’s northeast coast and Georgia’s southeast seaboard Wednesday before arriving near, or onto, South Carolina and North Carolina Thursday through Friday, producing 5 to 10 inches of rainfall.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday it was still too early to relax from the emergency footing the state has been on since last Wednesday.
“While we think this is a much better track than what we were looking at 72 hours ago, we just ask people to stay safe, remain vigilant,” he told reporters during a press conference at the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. “There will be some effects in the state of Florida. There’ll be storm surge; there’ll be some flooding; you may see wind damage, depending on how close this gets to the state.”
Until the storm blows safely away from Florida, he added, “We’re here until the duration, monitoring this thing.”
DeSantis issued an emergency rule that will ensure mid-level state agency managers get paid for the extra hours spent providing “critical services” in Hurricane Dorian preparation and, potentially, recovery.
He said he also spoke with Florida’s Republican Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, as well as acting Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Pete Gaynor about quickly initiating the process for federal reimbursement for state and local government expenditures related to Dorian.
“We’re going to be working with the [Trump] administration, basically, to provide the reimbursements,” DeSantis said, noting he was working particularly closely with Rubio in delivering federal disaster aid to counties to reimburse them for their storm-related costs.
He said Emergency Operations Director Jared Moskowitz has streamlined the process developed under the Scott administration to ensure the state doesn’t hold reimbursement money allocated for counties.
If local governments get repaid quickly, “I think that sends a good message that it really is the right thing to do to be prepared,” DeSantis said.
Throughout the emergency, the governor never ordered any evacuations or ordered emergency shelters opened, leaving it to local officials to make those decisions.
“They were all very cognizant of what those orders mean for people. They did not do it willy-nilly. We certainly were not going to do it willy-nilly and create a lot of chaos and panic,” DeSantis said. “I think it was done very deliberately, but I think it was done in a way to try to keep people safe.”
Referring to Scott’s TV appeals for people to evacuate “now,” days before Hurricane Irma made landfall in 2017, fostering traffic snarls, fuel shortages and selling out hotels – more than 6.5 million Floridians evacuated their homes, gridlocking I-75 and I-95 – DeSantis said he wanted to avoid “frustration in the past when people were kind of crisscrossing the state, evacuating into the storm path because they were told to evacuate at a certain time.”
His approach to emergency management will be a “bottom up effort and it really starts with the counties.”
“The folks at the local emergency operations level, they are very good at what they do particularly on the coastal counties,’’ DeSantis said. “So my view is let’s harness that experience.”