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Late evacuation order hurt more than helped

Largo officials are concerned that a large percentage of the city's residents were left frustrated, confused and in harm's way by the county's late call Saturday night for a mandatory evacuation from mobile homes.

At this week's City Commission meeting, commissioners complained that not only was the evacuation order issued after many mobile home residents were asleep, but the county also did not open shelters for the evacuees in Largo, where a third of the population lives in mobile homes.

The Largo officials have a point. The county's literal eleventh-hour evacuation order may have been well-intended, but it was so awkwardly handled that the risk to mobile home residents countywide actually may have been increased.

Pinellas County waited until 11 p.m. Saturday to issue the evacuation order for all mobile homes. Because many residents already were asleep, police and firefighters trailed by buses took to the streets with bullhorns and knocked on doors in mobile home parks to spread the word.

Despite those efforts, many residents didn't find out their mobile home parks had been evacuated until Sunday morning, and by that time, weather conditions were deteriorating. At 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Pinellas officials began urging those who had not evacuated to stay put because the storm had worsened.

Those who did hear the 11 p.m. televised evacuation notice heard that only two shelters, in St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs,were open to handle mobile home evacuees. People who lived in the middle of the county, including Largo, faced a long drive in the dark to possibly unfamiliar communities.

The problem was magnified by the fact that the media's evacuation announcements Saturday night generally included only the shelters' names and addresses.

No matter the situation, the results were not good. The anxiety level of mobile home residents, many of them elderly, was unnecessarily increased by being awakened by police and told to leave on their own or board a bus in the dark. Many who heard the order on television got into their cars and drove here and there in the dark, trying to find the shelters. Those who never heard the order until Sunday or didn't know how to get to the shelters were inclined to stay put in homes that might not withstand Jeanne's gusts.

Inaccurate forecasts of Jeanne's track no doubt contributed to Pinellas' late decision to evacuate mobile homes. The National Hurricane Center persisted with its forecast that Jeanne would turn north and miss west-central Florida until late Saturday night. By that time, even local television meteorologists had begun abandoning the National Hurricane Center forecast and noting that Jeanne was already well west of where the center had predicted it would turn. They warned that Jeanne might make a direct hit on the area after all.

However, Pinellas emergency officials were among the last in the region to issue an evacuation notice for mobile homes. An order issued after people have gone to sleep, and then in effect rescinded in the morning because of bad road conditions, is not helpful.

Next time a storm threatens Pinellas, county officials hopefully will remember the problems of this evacuation and sound the alarm earlier _ preferably while the sun is up, but at least before people are asleep. The county also needs to open shelters closer to concentrations of mobile home parks. And the media can do their part by broadcasting driving directions and maps in addition to addresses to help evacuees find the shelters.