DEFUNIAK SPRINGS — An influx of people deciding late to seek shelter from Hurricane Michael, combined with the upgrading of the storm to Category 4, prompted action by local governments to expand sheltering options.
In Walton County, officials opened a second shelter at Walton High School in DeFuniak Springs early Wednesday, according to a text message sent out by the county shortly before 1 a.m.
Initially, Walton County had opened a single shelter at Freeport High School at 12615 Business Highway 331 in Freeport. Shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday, the county announced that the special-needs portion of that shelter had reached capacity, and additional special-needs evacuees were being directed to Walton High School at 449 Walton Road in DeFuniak Springs.
In all, the Freeport High School shelter was hosting a combined total of 547 people as of early Wednesday morning, according to Walton County Public Information Officer Louis Svehla. At least some of those people were from a local nursing home, and some others were from Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast, according to Svehla.
The people from the nursing home and hospital "are not people who would otherwise be in intensive care or the emergency room," Svehla explained. "Those patients have been transported to medical facilities that have been designed to care for their specific needs." Specifically, people needing significant care were sent to Healthmark Regional Medical Center and North Okaloosa Medical Center, Svehla said.
In Okaloosa County, an influx of people at Northwest Florida State College's Raider Arena meant that the supply of cots was quickly utilized, according to Okaloosa Public Information Officer Christopher Saul. As a result, the county began asking people coming to Raider Arena early Wednesday morning to bring air mattresses to the shelter.
"As the storm continues to close in on the greater panhandle, we are seeing more and more people come into the shelter," Saul said in an email.
Saul didn't have a count of the people at Raider Arena, but said early Wednesday that "plenty of room" remained for people seeking shelter. The sheltering capacity at Raider Arena is 2,200 people, Saul said.
Meanwhile, another Okaloosa County shelter, Davidson Middle School in Niceville, which can accommodate both special-needs evacuees and general population evacuees, was at its 100-person capacity, according to Saul.
In Santa Rosa County as of Wednesday morning, the shelter at the Milton Community Center, 5629 Byrom St. in Milton, was hosting 56 general population evacuees, 14 special needs evacuees and 12 animals, according to Santa Rosa County Public Information Officer Brandi Whitehurst.
The county had no immediate plans Wednesday to open a second shelter, but would consider doing so if the population at the Milton shelter reached 100 people, Whitehurst said.
In other shelter-related developments, the Rev. Cecil Williams of Gregg Chapel Life Center at Gregg Chapel AME Church on Carson Drive in Fort Walton Beach announced early Wednesday morning that the storm shelter that had been operating at the center had closed.
"Due to the strength of the storm at this time, we have moved everyone to the Northwest Florida State College gymnasium, which is a true hurricane shelter," Williams explained in an email.