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Florida Officials Warn of ‘Historic Flooding’ Ahead of Ian

As shelters opened across Central Florida, officials warned that “historic flooding” could be in store for the region’s low-lying and flood-prone areas, with Hurricane Ian expected to bring torrential downpours through the region.

A palm sways to the early gusts of Hurricane Ian. Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel)
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/TNS
(TNS) - Rick Gossett, 63, puffed on a 305 cigarette outside the entrance gate to Apopka High School, where he expected to spend at least the next two days and nights.

”No smoking on campus,” he shrugged Wednesday afternoon as a drizzle turned to a steadier rain.

Homeless, the retired trucker had bought a $13 Amtrak ticket out of Tampa before Ian arrived and spent Tuesday night under an overpass.

”I was lucky to find this place,” he said of the school shelter. Strangers he didn’t know from an organization he didn’t call rousted him from his patch of pavement with the promise of an Uber ride to Apopka and safe accommodations for the storm.

As shelters opened across Central Florida, officials warned that “historic flooding” could be in store for the region’s low-lying and flood-prone areas, with Hurricane Ian expected to bring torrential downpours through the region late Wednesday and early Thursday.

“The National Weather Service did call us directly. And they predict that this [flooding] will be something we’ve never seen before,” said Alan Harris, director of Seminole’s office for emergency management. “It’s never good when they call you directly.”

Harris made the comments at a morning press conference at Lyman High School in Longwood, as the county opened its eight emergency shelters at public schools across the county.

In Orange County, teams of law enforcement and firefighters visited mobile home parks to encourage evacuations. The LYNX bus system also provided 13 buses to help transport people, officials said in a late-morning briefing.

“We expect to receive as much as two feet of rainfall within our county, that means we’re going to have some localized flooding within our county,” Maroy Jerry Demings said.

Orange County residents should hunker down and stay off roadways starting at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Demings said, after which winds could prove hazardous.

The county is “within the crosshairs” of the storm, which has neared Category 5 strength and will bring tropical storm and hurricane-force winds by the time it crosses the state and reaches Central Florida. Hurricane Ian could dump two feet of rainfall over the next 36 hours here.

“That means we’re going to have some localized flooding,” the mayor said at a news conference.

Five shelters throughout the county are open and accepting residents: Apopka High School, Ocoee High School, Dr. Phillips High School, Oak Ridge High School and Timber Creek High School. At Apopka High, which began accepting residents at 8 a.m., a worker said about 80 people had been checked in by around noon.

Jim Carollo, 69, came to the Apopka school’s shelter from nearby. He lives in a mobile home park and didn’t want to bet on his trailer surviving the storm. Many of his neighbors are staying put, he said.

The shelter isn’t comfy, he said, but it’s safe. They also gave him something to eat: a strawberry PopTart.

Citing data from Visit Orlando, Demings said occupancy at area hotels was about 85%, meaning there’s still room for evacuees, or those seeking a last-minute place to ride out the storm.

Teams of law enforcement and fire crews are visiting mobile home parks in the county in known low-laying areas hoping to encourage residents to evacuate. Demings said 13 parks are of concern. LYNX, the region’s bus service, provided 13 buses to help transport people to shelters.

“What we’re trying to do is mitigate the impact on our residents by evacuating those areas,” he said.

Seminole ordered the evacuation of residents who live in flood-prone areas, mobile and manufactured homes, and people with special needs as Hurricane Ian is expected to bring more than a foot of rain.

This week, homeowners in the Spring Oaks neighborhood, which sits along the Little Wekiva’s southern end, packed and stacked sandbags around their homes.

On Wednesday morning, stakes lined the shoulders of Little Wekiva Road to guide motorists if the roadway floods.

During heavy rain events, the river’s waters rise quickly and spill over into residents’ backyards. That’s coupled with sheets of stormwater flowing downhill into Little Wekiva Road. For days after Hurricane Irma in 2017, the road was under water several feet deep.

Hurricane Ian, however, is forecasted to dump a near record amount of rain to the area, raising fears that homeowners in Spring Oaks will be trapped in their houses.

Seminole emergency officials urged residents to stay in their homes during the storm. If wind speeds rise between 50 and 70 mph, “we may not be able to respond” to an emergency call, Seminole Fire Chief Matt Kinley said.

County officials said the shelters should be used as a last resort, and residents should check with family and friends to shelter before heading to the county facility.

In Lake County, officials said more than 300 people had been accepted into local shelters by 9:30 a.m.

During a briefing, Lake County Commission Chairman Sean Parks said the county was “as ready for this as we could ever be.”

“The primary hazards of concern are damaging hurricane winds of course, strong tropical storm force winds as well, with dangerous gusts. Widespread flooding from the rain – that’s one issue that we’re particularly concerned about,” he said.

Parks expressed confidence that the county recover from whatever destruction Ian brings.

“We know the damage is going to come, and it could be varied from the north part to the south part of the county, but the one thing that we do know is it will not change the heart and spirit of the county,” he said. “We’ll pull together through this.”

As the storm loomed, residents hurried in and out of local stores, gathering last-minute supplies at those that remained open. Many usually-packed roadways were mostly empty before midday.

Near the entrance to Universal Studios Orlando, the light traffic was an eerie reminder of March 2020, when the pandemic shuttered the theme parks.

A woman who said she preferred not to identify herself told a reporter she rode the bus from Colonial to the Dr. Phillips area and expected to check later in the day at the Rosen Inn on International Drive, where her family planned to ride out the storm. The hotel lowered its room rates.

“We’re treating it like an unexpected vacation,” she said. “We do this for the bigger ones.”

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