As Hurricane Irma continued to shift to the east on Wednesday, emergency officials in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties had not decided on whether to order evacuations and where.
Pinellas County commissioners and other leaders plan to hold an emergency meeting at 10 a.m. today. They will discuss the latest forecast from the National Weather Service, evaluate preparedness and seek to coordinate with other counties to ensure any evacuations are staged to keep traffic flow as smooth as possible, said county administrator Mark Woodard, in a statement.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said any evacuation order must be finalized this morning because it would fall within the "window of opportunity" for residents in the county's five evacuation zones to leave. "After that window period, it's too late," he said, adding that it could take up to 30 hours if all zones were evacuated.
Some of the biggest factors involve where the storm makes landfall and how much storm surge could result in Pinellas, Gualtieri said.
Other factors under consideration include protecting the evacuated areas to prevent potential looters and others from taking advantage of empty properties, Gualtieri added.
Commission Chair Janet Long said officials were "preparing resources and developing plans" for today's meeting.
In Hillsborough, any order will factor the intensity, speed and track of the storm, a county spokeswoman said. Officials were discussing evacuations but had not made any announcements by late Wednesday.
Pasco County officials, meanwhile, said they plan to issue an evacuation order on Friday once the county has 12,000 beds available in shelters, although they added later that they could back off that plan.
"We're preparing to issue an evacuation order. We're preparing to open shelters,'' said Kevin Guthrie, assistant county administrator for public safety. But if the hurricane continues to track eastward "we may not need to issue an evacuation order at all.''
Officials still don't know whether the order will be voluntary or mandatory, but it is expected to affect residents in low-lying areas in west Pasco and those in manufactured homes on the east side of the county, Guthrie said.
The Pasco shelters will be at Fivay, River Ridge, Sun Lake, Wesley Chapel and Wiregrass Ranch high schools and at the Mike Fasano Hurricane Shelter in Hudson.
Contributing: C.T. Bowen, Tony Marrero and Barbara Behrendt