Staff Report

What was considered a legitimate threat to Southwest Florida late last week faded as Hurricane Dorian began moving, slowly, north along the East Coast of the state late Monday.

By 3 p.m. Monday, school districts from Manatee to Charlotte to Sarasota counties had decided they would have normal schedules for school and after-school activities today.

DeSoto County Schools decided “out of an abundance of caution” to close schools for today, citing “reasonable worst case” winds might be too fast for school bus operations, it said in a social media post late Monday.

Hurricane Dorian’s slow track continued westward toward the Sunshine State on Sunday, as opposed to the projected northern turn — preventing local school officials from deciding then whether to close schools Tuesday.

Sarasota County Schools delayed announcing its decision several times, frustrating parents who worried they would not have enough time to prepare or flee from the incoming storm.

But following “intensive deliberations,” school district officials from Sarasota and Manatee counties decided to open schools during normal hours.

“The safety of our students and staff is fundamental to all we do when considering altering school operations,” said Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Todd Bowden. “Given what we know about the projected impact and wind force of Hurricane Dorian in our community on Tuesday, we believe it is safe for our schools to operate as previously scheduled, including after school events and activities.”

In a statement, both noted that forecasts from the National Weather Service office in Ruskin have consistently stated that the expected impact on Southwest Florida counties is expected to be “minimal.”

While wind levels may be elevated, they are not expected to come close to standards required to impact school bus transportation services, the statement said. Buses cannot operate if sustained winds reach 30 mph.

Emergency management operations in both counties de-escalated activity on Saturday, the statement said.

Students who are kept home Tuesday due to the storm will be able to receive an excused absence.

Charlotte County Schools posted a message on its website Monday afternoon stating the school district was continuing to work with the Charlotte County Emergency Operation Center to closely monitor Dorian’s approach.

With effects for the Gulf Coast looking minimal, the district announced school will be in session, and all regular activities will proceed as scheduled.

The three year-round schools in the district do not have school per their regular schedule, which will not change. Parents are encouraged to continue to monitor the storm and check the Charlotte County Public Schools website for any additional updates.

University of South Florida — including online campuses and other satellite campuses, are closed today, along with Florida SouthWestern State College and Florida Gulf Coast University.

Responses

Emergency personnel from throughout Southwest Florida were gearing up or already on their way to assist victims of Hurricane Dorian — even as it still hadn’t made landfall Monday night.

North Port, Charlotte and Englewood firefighters were heading south or east, with different units heading to Orlando or Miami to assist.

North Port Fire Rescue’s technical rescue team is staging at Florida International University in Miami. But the team may be sent further north if their services are needed in Palm Beach County, where residents are bracing for severe impacts.

The team — comprised of two lieutenants, two firefighter EMTs and two firefighter paramedics — is trained to respond to a wide range of emergencies, including structural collapses and vehicle extrication.

After Hurricane Michael devastated Mexico Beach last year, the team searched nearly 200 structures, noted North Port Fire Rescue Battalion Chief John Waligora, who also serves as special operations chief of the technical rescue team.

While the extent of potential damage remains unclear, the additional assistance from state agencies will give first responders living along the east coast a break to care for their families.

“If the storm impacts the area, not only are the residents victims,” Waligora said. “But so are the local first responders.”

A complete story on the teams deploying is on Page 1C.

Donations were also being sought from local agencies and nonprofit, including North Port American Legion Post 254 which “is honored to serve as a reception center for donations of water, can goods, baby supplies and pet supplies for the Bahamas. We already have a truck and trailer volunteered,” it said in a social media post.

Price gouging

In terms of price gouging, some investigations are underway. WINK News reported some stores attempting to sell cases of water for $40.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody said she will prosecute those who commit price gouging during a state of emergency.

“I have extended Florida’s Price Gouging Hotline to all 67 counties in an effort to prevent gouging, so Floridians can afford essential items now,” Moody stated in a news release.

To report price gouging, call the hotline at 866-9NO-SCAM or use a free app called NO SCAM, which is available through Apple and Android stores.

For more information on price gouging, go to the Attorney General’s website: www.myfloridalegal.com.

Will flights be affected?

Yes. Anyone taking a flight in the next few days should check with your airlines. Allegiant passengers can check allegiantair.com for the most updated flight information.

Scheduled service to and from the Punta Gorda Airport along with Bradenton-Sarasota International Airport may be disrupted until at least today. From Punta Gorda, Allegiant flights could be affected at the following airports: Charleston, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, Jacksonville, Myrtle Beach, Orlando Sanford, Savannah, St. Pete-Clearwater and San Juan in Puerto Rico.

Allegiant is offering passengers two easy ways to contact customer service to change Dorian-affected flights at no charge: call 702-505-8888 or email hurricane.help@allegiantair.com.

“This email is specifically for those Florida passengers who want to make a change to their existing reservation. When emailing, they should include their name, itinerary number, phone number and instructions on the change they want to make,” stated Hilarie Grey, spokesperson for Allegiant Travel Company.

Travelers heading out via either Punta Gorda or Sarasota airports are urged to check with their airlines before leaving.

No local evacuations, but...

Tolls have been suspended for the Florida turnpike along with eight toll roads in the state. It also included Alligator Alley and roads are opened to help people living along the East Coast of Florida to evacuate.

How can I stay informed?

In addition to staying informed by the National Hurricane Center, local news outlets (yoursun.com is free right now due to Dorian) and meteorologists, enroll in your local government’s emergency notification system. You will receive instant notifications as to evacuations, water boil notices and other emergency information specific to your home address.

• Charlotte County Emergency Alert program: www.alertcharlotte.com

• Punta Gorda CodeRED Notification System: bit.ly/PGCodeRED

• DeSoto County Emergency Alert Program: bit.ly/DeSotoAlerts

• Sarasota County CodeRED Notification System: bit.ly/SarasotaCodeRED

• North Port CodeRed Notification System: bit.ly/NorthPortCodeRED

Staff writer Daniel Sutphin contributed to this report.

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