Manatee County schools will be closed Friday because of Hurricane Matthew, and the city of Bradenton on Thursday evening followed the county in issuing a state of emergency.
The school district’s move came hours after the Manatee County commission declared a state of emergency to ease preparations for any local effects of the monster hurricane slamming South Florida.
“You’re under tropical storm watch and hopefully it will not go up to a warning,” said Bay News 9 meteorologist Mike Clay on Thursday. “The rain chances will be about 60 percent tomorrow (Friday), and we’re not expecting any heavy rain, but we could have gusty winds starting late tonight into tomorrow.”
The central Gulf Coast of Florida, including Manatee County, is under a tropical storm watch with Hurricane Matthew having been upgraded back to a Category 4 storm. Rainy and windy conditions associated with the outer bands of the hurricane are expected to begin affecting the area Thursday evening, according to the National Weather Service.
Elsewhere, Hurricane Matthew has already caused death and destruction in Haiti, killing at least 108 people with the number expected to rise. In Cuba, hundreds of thousands of people in the island nation’s eastern provinces were evacuated. No loss of life related to the hurricane has been reported so far, according to the Miami Herald.
Four shelters in Manatee County opened at 4 p.m. Thursday. The shelter locations are:
▪ Manatee High School, 902 33rd St. Court W., Bradenton.
▪ Virgil Mills Elementary, 7200 69th St. E., Palmetto.
▪ Myakka Elementary, 37205 Manatee Ave., Myakka City.
▪ R. Dan Nolan Middle School, 6615 Greenbrook Blvd., Lakewood Ranch (for special-needs residents only).
According to local officials, the county announced Thursday that Braden River High School, 6545 State Road 70 E., Bradenton, opened at 5 p.m. as a host shelter for evacuees. Manatee High School also served as a host shelter.
Just before 4 p.m. Thursday, more than 30 people — most from Fort Piece — waited outside Manatee High School where American Red Cross personnel were providing shelter. They had driven in a caravan led by Antonio Zubieta.
“I felt completely desperate because we couldn’t find any hotels,” Zubieta said in Spanish as he leaned against the school’s brick exterior. “All morning, we were looking for a place to stay.”
Zubieta and his friend, Jose Matilde Otero, said they were thankful for shelter from Hurricane Matthew. Otero, 55, is a farm worker who is also from Fort Pierce.
“This is my first hurricane,” Otero said rain began to drizzle then pour on the school’s parking lot. “You have seen other places and how they’ve been destroyed. You try your best to defend yourself ... prevent it from happening to you.”
Both Manatee High and Mills Elementary are pet-friendly shelters.
Once people were admitted inside Manatee High, American Red Cross personnel registered the groups and assigned each to a room. There were no beds, as those seeking shelter were encouraged to bring their own bedding materials.
As for all extra-curricular activities and athletic events for Friday, they have also been canceled.
“This is an abundance of caution, because we really don’t know what the impact of the storm is going to be,” school district spokesman Mike Barber said.
Bradenton Christian School also decided to close school on Friday, canceling after-school activities Friday and Saturday, according to officials.
Sarasota County public schools are scheduled to be open on Friday.
“It is a very interesting storm because it is not making landfall in Manatee County, but we are still expected to get tropical storm force winds at the worst-case scenario,” Acting Emergency Management Chief Sherilyn Burris said during a press conference. “Remember that it is never safe to stay in a mobile home or a manufactured home during high winds and to always evacuate to somewhere safer.”
The Manatee County Emergency Operations Center went into a level one, full activation at 8 a.m. Thursday. Currently, Manatee County government is planning to remain open.
The Manatee Clerk of Court’s Office and Judicial Center will be closed Friday.
“In addition to potentially getting storm impacts, we could also be facing evacuees heading to our area because it is a safer place to be,” Burris said.
By Thursday evening, several gas stations along Manatee Avenue had run out of gas as motorists scrambled for fuel.
“We’re out of regular and plus,” said Michael Shutt, an employee at the Shell station, 3401 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton. “We only have B power. Our other two gas stations have gas for now, but I don’t know how long till they’re out.”
At the BP station located at 2790 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton, employee Hassam Khaled said he only had premium fuel available.
“No, I don’t have any regular gasoline,” he said.
County officials are in discussions with state and neighboring county officials and considering becoming a host county for those evacuating from the other areas.
“The issue right now is uncertainty,” Bob Smith, the county’s public safety director, said during a meeting Thursday of the county commission. “We want to be prepared for the worst. ... As of right now, we are only looking at less than an inch of rainfall associated with the storm.”
The state of emergency designation approved by the commission will allow county officials to take some preparatory measures, such as ordering generators for shelters and other purchasing needs, he said.
“It really helps streamline a lot,” he said.
Manatee County has activated its Emergency Operations Center, which is being staffed through at least Friday morning, Smith said.
“Our primary concern is to make sure we have shelters in place for our citizens that need them,” he said.
Although no evacuations have been ordered, emergency management officials are recommending that manufactured and mobile home residents leave their homes.
Options for these residents being recommended are:
▪ Evacuate to friend’s or relative’s home.
▪ Evacuate the area as soon as possible. People leaving this area or areas in the projected path of the storm will also be on the road, so if residents decide to evacuate, they should do so with plenty of time to reach their destination.
▪ Evacuate to the hotel or motel. Make arrangements early as rooms will fill quickly with other evacuees.
▪ Evacuate to a public shelters.
Manatee County Area Transit Handy Bus service will be utilized to assist the evacuation of special needs residents, so riders with trips planned today should expect early pickups, according to county spokesman Nicholas Azzara. On Friday, the handy bus will only be operating for essential medical service trips, and all non-essential trips will be postponed.
Fixed MCAT routes are expected to continue running Friday, until tropical storm force winds begin to affect the area at which time service will be suspended immediately.
Manatee residents with questions about the storm or about local conditions should call Manatee Citizens Information Center at (941) 748-4501.