The City of Gainesville and its residents are finalizing last-minute preparations for Hurricane Irma, which has already begun to affect South Florida on Sunday.
Although there is no curfew, all residents should be indoors and off the roads by 4 p.m. Sunday, said Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe. Gainesville’s Regional Transit System shut down at 2 p.m., and all other city operations ended at 4 p.m., Poe said.
“This is going to be a serious event for us,” he said. “We are going to make it through this.”
Hurricane Irma is expected to be a Category 1 hurricane when it hits Gainesville, bringing tropical-storm-force winds as early as 6 p.m. Sunday, said Gainesville Fire Rescue Chief Jeff Lane. Alachua County will be under a hurricane warning for Sunday and Monday and a tornado watch until midnight Sunday. The eastern part of Alachua County is at a higher risk of experiencing tornados, Lane said.
Hurricane-force winds will begin whipping through the area around 8 a.m. Monday and last until around noon, Lane said. Tropical-storm-force winds will persist until about 6 p.m. Monday evening. Gainesville can expect between six and 10 inches of rain, and a flash flood watch is in effect for lower, flood-prone areas.
Poe said it’s likely internet and cellphone connection will be disturbed during the storm. It could take Gainesville Regional Utilities up to two weeks to restore power to some, Poe said.
Interstate 75 will remain open for the duration of the storm, Poe said.
A construction crane, located on Northwest Second Avenue near College Park Apartments, had raised some concerns among Gainesville residents and Poe. City Manager Anthony Lyons said he sent the building department to inspect the crane last week. The crane was deemed secure and storm-ready.
“We worked very, very hard last week to ensure that it is,” Lyons said.
Joshua Wong, a 21-year-old UF political science senior, came home to his College Park apartment Friday and found a letter from the leasing office taped to his door. The letter warned residents of the construction crane.
“We want you to be aware of it if you are not already and to exercise caution,” College Park management wrote in the letter.
Wong attempted to contact Roger Development Group, the construction company that owns and operates the crane, Sunday morning but wasn’t able to reach them.
“I think it’s kind of irresponsible for them to just leave a giant crane in front of buildings, especially when you know a hurricane is coming,” Wong said.
For residents of mobile homes and low-lying neighborhoods, county officials declared a mandatory evacuation Saturday. Alachua County Emergency Management also opened five more shelters Saturday, including Eastside High School, High Springs Community School, Oak View Middle School, William S. Talbot Elementary School and Westwood Middle School, which serves as a special needs shelter.
Organizers started searching for people who could help translate for Spanish speakers in Gainesville area shelters Saturday.
Ester de Jong, the director of the School of Teaching and Learning in the UF College of Education, led the efforts and reached out to individuals and language departments at UF, as well as her former advisee, Katherine Barko-Alva, to find translators.
Barko-Alva, a 2016 UF alumna and current assistant professor of English as a second language and bilingual education at the College of William & Mary, spent Saturday afternoon gathering volunteers from Catholic Gators, the UF Center for Latin American Studies and Gainesville acquaintances who could serve as translators.
Organizers also used social media to find translators.
Within a half-hour of beginning their efforts, Barko-Alva and de Jong had compiled a list of 20 translators.
“The emails just kept coming and coming, as did the support,” Barko-Alva said.
The volunteers are currently on standby and will be called upon to go to any of the shelters in the Gainesville area as they are needed, said Barko-Alva.
“As the storm passes and there’s help needed and support that needs to be facilitated, (the shelters) will want to have these people on call,” Barko-Alva said.
Tania Quesada, a postdoctoral fellow at the UF School of Forest Resources and Conservation, discovered the need for Spanish translators in area shelters on Facebook and signed up as a volunteer.
During the storm, Quesada and her family stayed at the Southwest Recreational Center, one of the shelters on UF’s campus.
“I want to try to be useful in this hard situation. I want to help in any way I can,” Quesada said. “There are people who are probably having a hard time getting around and communicating, and I want to be able to help those individuals.”