“It's not the most fun experience. We don't know if we'll have a house to go home to, but we've got what's most important.”

As Hurricane Irma churned her way towards South Florida on Friday, residents, businesses and organizations in Northwest Florida began to prepare to take an influx of evacuees from the central and southern parts of the state.

Even as hurricane tracking models began to shift west, Northwest Florida remained just outside of the “cone of uncertainty,” or area where the storm was expected to have the greatest impact. State emergency authorities asked officials in Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties to open host shelters to house evacuees from other parts of the state, while hotels in northern parts of the county were quickly filling up with families fleeing the storm.
 
“[Emergency personnel] are continuing to monitor the storm,” Okaloosa County Commission Chairman Carolyn Ketchel said Friday. “We do not expect there to be any changes, but if there are, we will certainly address that immediately. There have been a couple of wobbles, but at this point we are hoping the storm will remain on its current path, which is the spine of Florida, and dissipating as it climbs.”

Ketchel said the emergency operations staff will remain at work throughout the weekend to monitor the storm.

Alvin Henderson, director of public safety for Okaloosa county, said current models support that the area is safe from the brunt of the storm, but officials remain cautious. 

“We are still — knock on wood — outside the cone of concern, and really right now, we can probably see anywhere from about 20 to maybe 30 miles per hour sustained winds across our region with a higher gust of 25 to 35 miles per hour,” Henderson said. “As far as rain, we’re really not seeing too much in the way of rain.”

No room at the inns

In Crestview, many hotels were at or near capacity with evacuee families and their pets fleeing the massive Category 4 hurricane. The Comfort Inn and Suites on Southcrest Drive was busy Friday morning with truck drivers and electrical linemen heading south towards the storm and evacuee families seeking shelter until the storm passed.

General Manager Becky Triplett said she had no vacancies for the next several days, and had been at the hotel till after midnight Thursday helping evacuees find accommodations in Crestview and elsewhere.  

“We had to call around a lot last night to figure out where we could put people…I just don’t want to leave them stranded,” Triplett said. “I know they’re stressed and I know it’s a hard time for people and I don’t want to just give them a ‘no’ or ‘Sorry, I don’t have any rooms.’ … I know it’s filling up fast, so we’re doing our best.”

Kristin and Ben Grimm, along with their five-year-old daughter Callie and dog Dixie, were evacuated from their home in New Smyrna Beach, a beachside community south of Daytona. They spent the night Thursday at the Comfort Inn and Suites, but were leaving Friday to stay with friends.  

“It’s not the most fun experience,” Kristin said as she embraced her young daughter. “We don’t know if we’ll have a house to go home to, but we've got what’s most important.”

Sonya and Harold Boss and their beagle Kingston, a family from St. Augustine, had only managed to secure one night in the Comfort Inn and Suites and were going to travel to Pensacola Friday to try and find other accommodations. The retired couple said they lived in an evacuation zone and had no choice but to head north.   

“We’ve lived in Florida since the 1970s, but this is the first time we’ve had to evacuate,” Sonya said. “We put the shutters on our house…ours isn’t a sad story. Yet.”

Shelters to open in three local counties

Okaloosa County was scheduled to open two shelters Friday afternoon to house people fleeing Hurricane Irma.

The first shelter was to open at 4 p.m at Shoal River Middle School on Redstone Avenue in Crestview, according to Okaloosa County Commission Chairman Carolyn Ketchel.

The second would open if needed, at Riverside Elementary School, also on Redstone Avenue, when the first reaches 75 percent capacity, Ketchel said.

Shelters are being provided only for evacuees from the Florida Peninsula as "tropical conditions are not currently expected in Okaloosa County," a press release from county officials said.

The Florida Highway Patrol has agreed to direct residents of the Florida Peninsula to the shelters using digital signage along Interstate 10.

Santa Rosa and Walton counties also opened shelters for Hurricane Irma evacuees.

The Christian Life Church at 4401 Avalon Blvd. in Milton began accepting evacuees at noon Friday, according to a county news release. “It is not a pet friendly or special needs shelter,” the release said.

A second shelter would be made available if the first reached capacity, the release said.

Walton County opened a shelter at noon, Friday, at Southwide Baptist Church at 1307 Coy Burgess Loop in DeFuniak Springs, county spokesman Louis Svehla said in an email.

A Citizen Information Center was also activated in Walton County at its Emergency Operations Center. 

"The center is staffed to assist with the distribution of information to Walton County residents, visitors and any evacuees that may arrive in Walton County," Svehla said.

The citizen information line can be reached at (850) 892-8392 or (850) 892-8394 or by dialing 2-1-1.

Animals welcomed too

Hard working staff at the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society managed in about an hour Friday afternoon to clear enough room in an office space to stack approximately 30 animal crates against counters and walls.

The crates, carpeted and covered with sheets supplied by Resort Quest, are to serve as temporary homes for animals who accompany Hurricane Irma evacuees from the Florida Peninsula to safe harbor in Northwest Florida.

“It’s kinda like planning a big wedding and not sending out RSVP’s. We could get one or we could get 300,” PAWS Director Dee Thompson said of her agency’s undertaking.

PAWS' plan is collect whatever pets might arrive at the Okaloosa County evacuee shelters in Crestview, get a photo with the owner, provide an identification number and move the animal to the agency’s Laurel Hill location.

As the Laurel Hill facility fills up, and due to its small size Thompson said she anticipates this happening, pets will be relocated to PAWS headquarters near Fort Walton Beach.

All of the animals brought in -- and Thompson said provisions are being made to accommodate just about everything -- will be treated with care, and any dogs entrusted to PAWS care will be regularly walked.

With no Irma-related weather expected in Okaloosa County over the weekend, Thompson said PAWS will likely encourage pet owners to drop in and visit their charges while they’re in the area.

Only those holding the proper ID will be able to pick up animals left with the shelter.

Also in Santa Rosa County, the June Ates Arena at the Santa Rosa County Fairgrounds will accept evacuee horses after 8 a.m., Saturday. The county release said stalls are limited and the horses will be taken on a first come, first serve basis. Feed will be available for purchase. Call (850) 390-3227 or (850) 623-1115 for more information.