County alters plans after Fay shifts

Aug 20, 2008

Gainesville Sun–August 20, 2008

By Amy Reinink
Sun staff writer

The Palm Beach Post/The Associated Press

An overnight shift in Tropical Storm Fay’s forecasted path led to an early-morning shift in Alachua County’s emergency operations on Wednesday.

The county had scaled back its plans to open shelters and take other emergency measures on Tuesday after the storm’s path shifted east and away from Gainesville.

But Wednesday morning, as Fay curved back toward Florida’s coast and toward Gainesville again, officials were preparing for the storm’s second loop through the state by getting ready to open shelters again.

The National Weather Service on Wednesday predicted the storm could dump 12 inches of rain on Gainesville from Thursday night through Friday.

“This is probably one of the most difficult storms I’ve seen in terms of having to make decisions based on the forecasted track,” said David Donnelly, Alachua County’s chief of emergency management. “Keeping ahead of the storm becomes difficult when it slows down, weakens, strengthens again, heads out over the ocean, then heads back over the coast again. We’ve been in and out of the tropical storm force wind field off and on for the past few days.”

Donnelly said preparations on Wednesday morning focused on flood readiness. He said anyone whose neighborhood flooded during the 2004 hurricane season should keep an especially close eye on the storm.

“Obviously, there’s a potential for tropical storm force winds, but the biggest issue right now is the rain,” Donnelly said. “If you flooded during Frances and Jeanne in 2004, you’re most likely going to flood in this storm.”

The storm mostly spared Alachua County on its first pass through Florida on Tuesday night, bringing scattered rain showers and some gusting wind. Donnelly said the only damage reported to the Emergency Operations Center on Tuesday was one downed tree.

6:07 a.m.

After hearing of the many paths that Tropical Storm Fay could take over the next few days, David Donnelly offered an apt description of the storm during an emergency briefing with National Weather Service forecasters Tuesday.

Donnelly, Alachua County’s chief of emergency management, called the storm "sloppy."

Donnelly and other local officials on Tuesday warned that Fay could douse Alachua County with heavy rainfall twice – once as it slogs past Gainesville on its trek north, and again if it curves back toward shore after stalling over the Atlantic Ocean later this week.

But forecasters also said there was so much uncertainty about Fay’s path, which resembled a question mark across Florida on Tuesday, emergency officials should remain prepared for anything.

"It’s taking a long time to do what it’s going to do," said National Weather Service Meteorologist Steve Letro. "And whatever it ends up doing, we will most likely be dealing with it until the end of the week."

As of late Tuesday night, Fay had brought little more to Alachua County than scattered rain showers.

Early forecasts had predicted the storm would bring 40 to 45 mph winds and several inches of rain to Alachua County as it passed the area on its way north.

That led emergency officials, utilities and other local agencies to activate the county’s Emergency Operations Center, cancel meetings and start planning for post-storm cleanup.

Though local officials scaled back most of those efforts as the storm’s path veered east and farther away from Gainesville, they said they weren’t letting their guard down yet.

"This is a sloppy storm that bears continuous monitoring," Donnelly said.

Fay made landfall in southwest Florida early Tuesday morning, causing a widespread closure of schools and shutdown of government functions in South Florida.

Though some Alachua County meetings were canceled and the University of Florida closed its residence hall check-in until 6 a.m. Thursday, county schools and government offices remained open.

Alachua County Emergency Planner Danny Hinson said the county’s measured response was a sign that it had learned from not only the 2004 hurricane season, but from the quieter seasons following it.

"We started making plans on Sunday with the worst-case scenario in mind," Hinson said. "Once we were all ready to pull the trigger, so to speak, we stopped and assessed the situation. For the time being, we’re not opening shelters, and we’re not closing schools or government offices. We’re just monitoring and waiting to see where the storm goes. We’ve got plans in place so we can make some quick decisions if we need to."

Forecasters said Alachua County could continue to see heavy rain associated with Tropical Storm Fay through the rest of the week.

At issue is whether the storm will strengthen over the Atlantic Ocean today before heading back toward land, and where it makes landfall again when it returns.

"Right now, the forecast is showing it coming ashore around Jacksonville, but the swath of possible paths is wide," Hinson said.

Alachua County remained under a flood watch on Tuesday, and emergency officials warned that low-lying neighborhoods could be susceptible.

Gainesville’s Public Works Department started distributing sandbags Tuesday, and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office warned drivers to cut out unnecessary trips and to drive slowly and carefully on the trips they have to take.

"Any time we have standing water on the roads, almost without fail, we see a fatality," said Lt. Steve Maynard, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office.

Still, Donnelly said heavy rain is easier to deal with than the strong wind originally predicted.

"We had a rain event recently where 3 inches fell in one hour," Donnelly said. "It’s an inconvenience for motorists, but it’s something we’re used to dealing with."