Northwest Florida emergency officials began opening shelters and offering sandbags Monday after launching a state of emergency in expectation of Hurricane Michael.
Walton County, currently charted to be on the western side of the storm, announced a mandatory evacuation Monday for all areas south of Choctawhatchee Bay and east to the county line. Some areas north of the bay are also in the mandatory evacuation zone.
Jeff Goldberg, Walton County Emergency Management director, said the county is anticipating a 7- to 8-foot storm surge when the projected Category 2 or 3 Michael makes landfall.
“When you’re staring at a Category 2 or 3 there’s no such thing as a good side,” Goldberg said.
While Okaloosa County stopped short of a mandatory evacuation order, officials urged all people south of U.S. Highway 98 and in other coastal and low-lying flood-prone areas to evacuate as soon as possible.
“We are not under state statutes allowed to make mandatory evacuations,” county spokesman Christopher Saul said. “We put out an order to evacuate. But if you don’t leave, we can’t come get you during the storm. We’re not going to risk the lives of first responders needlessly."
Hurricane Michael intensified from a tropical storm into a hurricane at 11 a.m. Monday and is expected to strengthen further before landfall.
The National Hurricane Center's 10 p.m. update on Monday reported a continued strengthening. It was about 485 miles south of Panama City. Maximum sustained winds climbed to 90 mph and the central pressure was at 970 millibars.
Hurricane warnings were issued Monday afternoon to include the area from the Alabama-Florida state line and the Suwannee River as Hurricane Michael continues moving north at a slightly higher forward speed and 80 mph winds.
Gov. Rick Scott lifted bridge tolls for evacuees Monday. The Florida Department of Transportation said, however, all bridges in Northwest Florida will close without warning once sustained winds exceed 39 miles per hour.Students across the area will be out of school both Tuesday and Wednesday, according to officials.
School closures include Northwest Florida State College, the University of West Florida and Florida State University campuses in Pensacola and Tallahassee.
Although some tourists will be forced to leave in Walton County, others said they were planning to ride it out.
Shelters began opening as early as 8 p.m. Monday following the announcement of mandatory and voluntary evacuations in Northwest Florida.
Okaloosa County officials announced Davidson Middle School in Crestview would be the first to open at 8 p.m. Monday for the general population and those with special needs. Another standard shelter was scheduled to open at the Northwest Florida State College arena in Niceville at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
Freeport High School in Walton County was also scheduled to open as a shelter at 7 a.m. Tuesday, in addition to the Guy Thompson Community Center in Santa Rosa County at 1 p.m.
Multiple sandbagging locations were announced Monday. Most required individuals to bring their own bags and, in some cases, shovels.
Bay County Public Works placed sand for bagging at Pete Edwards Field at 7300 McElvey Rd., Panama City Beach and at the Deer Point Dam located on the NW side.
Walton County has three sandbag stations open to the public at 1002 South County Highway 83 in Santa Rosa Beach, 226 Ponce de Leon Street in Miramar Beach and 30 Lakeview Drive in Santa Rosa Beach. Shovels will not be furnished, so officials are advising the public to bring their own.
Okaloosa County also has three sandbag locations open to the public at 1759 South Ferdon Blvd. in Crestview, 84 Ready Road NW in Fort Walton Beach and at The City of Destin Public Works office on Commons Drive in Destin.
Santa Rosa County has sand available at Pine Forest and Carroll in Milton, Pace Fore Rescue District in Pace, Citrus and Leisure in Navarre and Tiger Point Park in Gulf Breeze.
‘This is a serious storm…’
On Monday, many businesses had higher than normal traffic, particularly those selling gas, groceries, generators and lumber.
Northwest Florida residents and visitors were met with long lines at the pumps Monday, with several gas stations without fuel by mid-afternoon.
Lowe’s Home Improvement in Fort Walton Beach, according to Service Manager Jay Hildebrand, ran out of generators and water by 3 p.m. Hildebrand said the store was expecting an emergency shipment by Monday night.
“At around noon Beal Parkway was back up pretty good from people wanting to turn in where we are,” Hildebrand said. “They were all trying to get into Lowes and Walmart.”
During an emergency meeting Monday, Okaloosa County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel said Hurricane Michael was a serious storm and citizens needed to take the storm seriously.
"We have to be prepared for this," added Okalooosa County Commission Chairman Graham Fountain. "We could be in for a rough situation."
Alicia Adams, Tony Judnich, Tom McLaughlin, Jim Thompson and Wendy Victora contributed to this report.