As the City of Gainesville braces for the impact of Hurricane Irma under a declaration of emergency, UF has not determined whether classes will be canceled Friday or Monday.
Mayor Lauren Poe announced the seven-day emergency declaration at a press conference Wednesday at about 1 p.m. to prepare residents for the Category 5 storm likely to hit Florida this weekend.
“It is too early to forecast where exactly this hurricane might go, but we are confident it will impact our area in a very significant way,” Poe said.
Irma has already hit Caribbean islands such as St. Thomas and the Virgin Islands and, as of press time, has made contact with Puerto Rico — with winds averaging at 185 mph, according to The Weather Channel.
Nate McGinnis, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said Hurricane Irma is still too far out to determine a specific path, but it will most likely hit the east coast of Florida, similarly to Hurricane Matthew’s path in October 2016.
Although Hurricane Irma looks like it’s taking the same path as Hurricane Matthew, it will not have the same effect, McGinnis said. In a Category 5 hurricane, tropical storm force winds extend 130 to 190 miles out from the center of the storm.
“Even if this storm goes along the coast, Gainesville could still very well see tropical storm force winds,” McGinnis said.
Preparation before the storm
Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., and Bill Nelson, D-Fl., sent a letter Wednesday to Congress asking for aid for damage caused by Hurricane Irma, as part of a $7.85 billion aid package going to Texas for Hurricane Harvey, according to a Senate press release.
Poe said the citywide emergency declaration will allow for Gainesville staff to more openly coordinate with county and state officials on storm preparations.
He said Alachua County Emergency Management plans to open at least two shelters Friday at 10 a.m. — one at the Easton-Newberry Archery Center, located at 24880 NW 16th Ave., and one specifically for residents with special needs at the Senior Recreation Center, located at 5701 NW 34th Blvd.
Poe said residents should be prepared to sustain themselves without water or power for three days and encouraged using tap water to fill empty, washed-out containers in light of water shortages at stores.
“Now is the time for you to get everything you need for the potential landfall of this hurricane,” he said. “If you decide to relocate in advance of the storm start planning to do so right now.”
The city has not determined if it will close parks and non-essential city functions late Sunday and early Monday, when the hurricane is projected to make landfall.
Poe said the city is only aware of one construction crane near Midtown and has asked that the firm take it down before the storm hits.
At about 3 p.m. Wednesday, the City of Gainesville announced that 10,000 sandbags were picked up by residents, and the materials had run out, according to a press release. More sandbags will be distributed Thursday from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. at the Gainesville Public Works Compound, located at 405 NW 39th Ave.
During the peak time of the storm, Poe said the city will not likely be able to immediately respond to emergency calls due to the outdoor conditions and threat to first responders’ safety. Regional Transit System buses will not operate during the storm, and Poe said he advises for all residents to keep off the road during the time of the storm.
“This is also an opportunity for us to come together and show who we are as a community,” Poe said. “We need to reach out to our neighbors, we need to have a plan to check on one another, we need to have a plan to help one another out.”
School closures and safety plans
Alachua County Public Schools announced Wednesday afternoon that schools will be closed Monday, according to a tweet.
Football games were rescheduled or canceled, Alachua County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Jackie Johnson wrote in an email. Seven ACSO schools may be used as shelters by Alachua County Emergency Management, if necessary.
Santa Fe College hasn’t yet decided whether it will cancel classes. The administration is monitoring the storm and will update students and faculty through its website, said Teri McClellan, the assistant vice president of communications and creative services at Santa Fe.
The Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo is working on a hurricane plan to evacuate animals if necessary but won’t make any final decisions until the college does, said zoo employee Cheetara Ritz.
Although UF has not announced if and when the university will cancel classes, earlier Wednesday, Chief Linda Stump-Kurnick, the assistant vice president of public and environmental safety sent out an email to all faculty, students and staff about the latest advisories about Hurricane Irma as it develops.
Announcements about schedule changes or cancellations will be made through official UF channels, according to Stump-Kurnick’s email. Any other pertinent information about the hurricane can be found at the UF homepage or on UF’s information hotline: 1-866-UF-FACTS.
To prepare, UF is also sharing information on Twitter at @UFPublicSafety. Stump-Kurnick is also urging people to download the GatorSafe app and the free weather app through the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network.
By Thursday and Friday, UF units in south Florida and around the state will be prepared to implement their tropical weather plans, Stump-Kurnick said.
Campus shelters may be open to students, faculty, staff and families of students evacuating, but this will be officially decided within the next few days, according to Stump-Kurnick.
Anyone who wishes to travel should be aware of potential traffic and inclement weather conditions as Hurricane Irma makes landfall, according to Stump-Kurnick’s email.
“It will be important to talk with family members about whether you may be safer in your home or apartment, with family in another location or at a shelter,” Stump-Kurnick wrote. “In some cases, UF’s residence halls may be the safest option.”
Johnelle Douglas, a 22-year-old chemical engineering junior isn’t worried about her situation but is scared of what may happen across the state.
“I’m kind of worried because my mom is in south Florida right now, so she’s my main concern,” she said. “I feel like we’re going to be okay here in Gainesville.”
Douglas said she thinks she and her roommates are prepared for Hurricane Irma’s landfall. Douglas bought water after searching across town and also bought candles.
“We’re planning to stay in our apartment for now, but we all have full tanks of gas, and we’re kind of just going to wait it out and see what happens,” Douglas said.
Jessica Giles, David Hoffman, Meryl Kornfield, Christina Morales and Catie Wegman contributed to this article.