KISSIMMEE, Fla. (Reuters) - At a retirement community in central Florida, elderly residents waited for a bus on Monday to take them to a shelter as one of the most monstrous Atlantic hurricanes on record crawled toward the state.
Mary McNiff, 92, sat in her wheelchair waiting to board at the Good Samaritan Society in Kissimmee, near Orlando, one of more than a million people under evacuation orders along the U.S. East Coast on the Labor Day holiday.
“Kind of anxious to get it over with,” she said before a rare trip off the property. “I haven’t been out for two years really with this leg,” she said, pointing to a cast on her left leg that she has been wearing since she had complications with a blood clot.
Hurricane Dorian was still miles out to sea, squatting over the Bahamas where it had already destroyed homes with maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (249 kph). Forecasters warned it could still be dangerous as it drew closer to Florida even if its eye did not make landfall in the state.
The National Weather Service warned of hurricane-strength winds, several feet of storm surges and the risk of dangerous flash floods along much of the Florida coastline in the coming days.
Sue Watson, one of McNiff’s neighbors, was reluctant to move from the place she has called home for 14 years.
“I was all set to stay home until they had to turn the water off,” she said as she waited for the bus to pull out. She was not afraid, she said. “God knows what he’s doing and he’s in control.”
Another Florida resident, Randy Hightower, 71, evacuated from his mobile home in Daytona Beach to the Volusia County Fair Grounds shelter on Monday with his wife and dog. He called himself “an old Florida cracker” and said: “I’m more scared of this one than I’ve ever been of one in Florida before.”
Nine counties in Florida have ordered mandatory evacuations, while seven counties have voluntarily evacuations. Farther north, officials in coastal South Carolina and Georgia ordered hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes for shelter.
On what would have usually been a bustling Labor Day holiday, historic downtown St. Augustine was instead filled with the sound of power saws, drills and hammers as bay-front businesses fortified themselves against impending winds and flooding.
It is the third storm Joy Warren and her husband, Andrew, have weathered since buying their 16-bedroom waterfront bed and breakfast more than a decade ago.
“I don’t know how many hurricanes it’s been through,” she said. “It’s still here. I love it. I’m going to get in as soon as I can. If it’s trashed, I’ll rebuild again.”
The Pedro Menendez High School in St. Augustine has been converted into a shelter with space for 500 people. Lee Franco headed inside clutching a pillow and a box of tissues. She had only moved to Florida six months ago but felt prepared.
“Because I was following the news, I knew what I needed, so we have sleeping bags, our papers and everything we need,” she said. “It’s so boring there, there’s nothing to do. You read and play with the telephone and that’s it.”
Steven Apuzzi, 49, was hoping he and his three children would get in. His family has been homeless and arrived at the shelter in a gray Dodge caravan in which they have been sleeping.
“I’m going through it,” he said, describing the problems a single father faces getting access to shelter. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get into this shelter. I’m hoping and praying.”
The shelter eventually let him in and he called it a blessing. Once the hurricane passed, he was not sure where the family would head next.
Reporting by Gabriella Borter in Kissimmee and Zachary Fagenson in St. Augustine; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Nick Zieminski and Peter Cooney