As Hurricane Matthew prepared to lash the Bahamas and inched closer to Florida on Wednesday morning, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he is worried there haven’t been enough evacuations yet in advance of a strong storm.
“My biggest concern is people don’t take it seriously enough,” Scott said told emergency management officials during a morning briefing at the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. “This could turn, and are we going to be ready?”
In a news conference afterward, Scott repeatedly used words like “devastating” and “catastrophic” to stress the seriousness of the damage Matthew could do to Florida’s eastern coast.
He said residents in coastal low-lying areas or on barrier islands should leave immediately.
“This is a dangerous storm and it is never too early to evacuate,” Scott said. “You must leave before it’s too late. We cannot put first-responders’ lives at risk during the storm.”
He said there are “plenty of sheltering opportunities in the same county where you live in. You don’t have to go way far inland. ... You can go inland a few miles and be safe.”
Scott said tolls on Florida’s Turnpike and other state-run roadways remain in place but they’ll be suspended “if we need to.” On Tuesday, several elected officials in Miami-Dade County wanted tolls suspended immediately in the county.
“Those decisions will be made as we hear from the counties about their evacuation plans” on Wednesday, Scott said, adding that he’ll be in touch with counties this morning to know what those plans are.
Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, stressed “calm and urgency” for officials coordinating preparation and response efforts across the state. He told officials at the State Emergency Operations Center to make sure all preparation measures were in place. Koon also said they should be ready for when the storm passes to begin damage assessments, debris removal and power restoration.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Hermine, a Category 1 storm that hit Florida’s Big Bend a month ago, parts of Tallahassee were without power for a week — sparking a feud between city officials and Scott over whether the city was getting and accepting the help it needed from utility companies.
“One thing I saw with the utilities — the co-ops worked with co-ops, the municipals worked with the municipals, and the big, publicly traded worked with each other,” Scott said, adding that he talked with utility companies on Tuesday to ensure they took a different approach for Matthew.
“If they get all the resources they need, that’s great,” Scott said. “I want to make sure if they need resources that (1) they pre-position resources and (2) if they need resources, don't just rely on the co-ops for the co-ops, the municipals for the municipals, and the big four for the big four. I want them all to work together because we need power back quickly.”
Wednesday, Scott plans to travel from Tallahassee to Fort Pierce, Rockledge and Jacksonville for additional weather briefings and press conferences throughout the state. Scott’s schedule beyond Wednesday is still up in the air, so it’s unknown yet where he’ll be as the hurricane hits.
Mail-in ballots are being sent out to Florida voters this week who requested them, but Scott said Hurricane Matthew “won’t have an impact” on the November election.
“The nice thing about our state is you have a lot of opportunities to vote,” Scott said. “You can vote by mail, you can vote early and then you still have the opportunity to vote on Election Day. It’s not like we have just one day in our state.”