Thousands flee Dorian’s track

Katie Evans, right, of the Village of Lake Deaton, talks with Dennis Knepshield, of the Village of Silver Lake, as Community Watch staff members and volunteers passed out storm safety information in The Villages east of U.S. Highway 27/441.

Hurricane Dorian swelled into a Category 5 storm as it slammed into the Bahamas Sunday, tying the record for the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever to come ashore there. With its trek north spurring the evacuations of thousands of coastal Floridians from Palm Beach to Jacksonville, Central Florida communities such as The Villages are opening their doors. At least six Florida counties have ordered mandatory evacuations from the Category 5 storm, prompting shelters to open here:

Sumter County will open two pet-friendly shelters 10 a.m. today. The Sumter County Fairgrounds, located at 7620 State Road 471 in Webster, will be opened for the general population and the Wildwood Community Center, located at 5600 Powell Road, Wildwood, will be available for those who have special needs. For information, call 352-689-4400.

Lake County — which is under a tropical storm watch — will open six emergency shelters at noon today. Mount Dora High School, located at 700 N. Highland St., Mount Dora, will be open to the general public without pets. Pet-friendly shelters will be open at Round Lake Elementary, 31333 Round Lake Road in Mount Dora, and Spring Creek Elementary, 44440 Spring Creek Road in Paisley. Three other shelters will open that are pet-friendly and can accommodate those with special needs:  Leesburg Elementary, 2229 South

St., Leesburg; Lost Lake Elementary, 1901 Johns Lake Road, Clermont; and Umatilla Elementary, 401 Lake St. in Umatilla.

Marion County had not planned any shelter openings as of Sunday evening, but officials said they would be announced if the need arises. “We always account for that because we’re one gas tank away from South Florida,” said Marion County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Sgt. Paul Bloom.

Some Villagers have already welcomed evacuees into their homes as area hotels quickly sold out.

Gail Hole’s daughter-in-law’s parents, Sarah and Cliff Bragdon, arrived Saturday at her Village of Dunedin home after being evacuated from Melbourne Beach.

“They live on the island and are only about two blocks from the water,” Hole said.

The Bragdons stayed with the Holes during Hurricane Irma, too, so Hole joked that now they all feel like old pros when it comes to getting through a hurricane.

Hole prepared by stocking up on food, water, card games and puzzles, and has gas grills on hand in the event that the power goes out.

“Last time, they came out really lucky and had no damage to their house at all,” Hole said. “Hopefully this time it will be a similar outcome.”

On Friday, Mac Freeman, of the Village of Calumet Grove, was getting her house ready for friends coming in from Belleview and Daytona Beach.

“You won’t know until it hits, but this is the right thing to do,” Freeman said. “You open your heart and your home to friends in need.”

Freeman’s friends in Belleview usually stay with her during hurricanes because their power always goes out and hers doesn’t. A few years ago they jokingly made her a sign that says “Hotel Freeman,” which she keeps in front of her house.

“The Villages is a safe place,” Freeman said. “There’s no storm surge that’s going to get you here, and The Villages is very proactive. Hotel Freeman is open and ready.”

Local religious groups also opened their doors to people looking for shelter from the storm.

Oxford Assembly of God opened as a pet-friendly shelter on Sunday and is prepared to take in more people as needed said Laura Jones, the churches business administrator.

“If they come, we’ve got them,” she said. “We’re not going to turn anybody away. If people are scared and they want to come, we’ll take them.”

Chabad Lubavitch of Ocala, The Villages and Tri-County in Oxford also has some people staying with them at the Chabad House, and First Baptist of Lady Lake said some of its congregants are ready to take people in to ride out the storm.

Houses of worship such as Good News Church in Leesburg, Leesburg Church of the Nazarene, Northside Christian in Fruitland Park and Open Door Community in Summerfield all stood ready to open as shelters if needed.

Just having a safe roof over one’s head doesn’t ensure a full belly though. The Salvation Army has more than 30 mobile feeding units that can each serve 500 to 1,500 meals to evacuees each day. Locally, the group is staging at 2605 South St. and already is preparing meals for shelters that will be opening as needed.

Meanwhile, more than 60 Community Watch staff members and volunteers from other district departments went door-to-door in the Villages east of U.S. Highway 27/441 Saturday to make sure residents in older homes were ready.

Members of the group, dressed in yellow identification vests, started knocking on doors at 9 a.m. and finished around 1 p.m., said Nehemiah Wolfe, division chief of Community Watch.

“We were overwhelmed with staff who were willing to step up and do this,” Wolfe said. “It was a great community effort.”

Lisa Johnson, of the Village of Silver Lake, was grateful.

“This will be our first storm since we bought the house,” she said. “I thought that it was nice that they went out and gave people information. They were very pleasant.”

Fred Briggs, president of The Villages Homeowners Advocates, said he was impressed with the way everyone stepped up to get the word out.

“(District Manager) Richard Baier and the whole Community Watch team does a wonderful job,” he said. “I’m extremely proud that they got out there and went door to door. They’re doing terrific work and I’m really impressed.”