It was Tuesday morning, the day before Hurricane Ian bulldozed into Southwest Florida and already less than 24 hours before Gov. Ron DeSantis declared it was too late for remaining residents to evacuate.
But at a Collier County Commission meeting, officials agreed they should pray for Tampa Bay.
“There’s a lot of reasons for us to be praying these days, especially with anybody that’s been watching the Weather Channel,” said commission chairperson William McDaniel. “So keep our friends in the northern (part of the state) and of Tampa and such in our prayers as well. They’re staring at this thing right now.”
Later in the meeting, he would criticize the news media for “saying a whole bunch of different things” about the storm and local preparation. He commended a county official for avoiding that kind of “hyperbole.”
At the time of the 9 a.m. meeting, forecasts still pointed to a catastrophic Tampa Bay-area landfall, though Lee County was under a hurricane warning and Collier would soon come under a hurricane watch. By Tuesday afternoon, the immense danger for Southwest Florida would become clear.
Southwest Florida’s ultra-compressed timeline — from that realization to evacuating its residents — highlights the challenges that accompanied Hurricane Ian, a behemoth storm with a constantly changing forecast and a last-minute eastward shift. But it also has some people raising questions about whether Southwest Florida county officials acted with enough urgency to give residents time to get out.
Evacuations were mandated for Lee County’s most vulnerable zone 13 hours after Pinellas County issued its first order, and 17 hours after Hillsborough began its evacuations. While emergency management experts caution against comparing the evacuation times of different counties due to varying geography and population, the differences illustrate just how quickly Southwest Florida residents were told to respond.
Kathrine Morong, a Fort Myers resident living in the most vulnerable evacuation area, Zone A, had been listening for days to local news broadcasts warning of the storm’s danger. She had already made her preparations, like getting pet supplies and gasoline, and was waiting to see what happened next.
When Lee County ordered evacuations on Tuesday morning, she had an instant reaction: Why did they wait so long?
Morong said she had been ready to go earlier but the timing of the order meant that she and her neighbors had to leave when it was already storming outside, and it was too late to find an available room out of harm’s way. She ended up at an AirBnB in Southeast Florida.
“It doesn’t make sense,” she said. “We were always in the zone.”
A moving target
Two days before landfall, Lee County officials said in a news conference that they wouldn’t know about mandatory evacuation orders until Tuesday.
County Manager Roger Desjarlais pointed out the high variability of hurricane forecasts.
“A couple days ago Fort Myers, Lee County, was right in the very center of the cone of uncertainty,” Desjarlais said Monday. “That’s really the best place to be three, four days out because the storm will never, ever behave that way.”
But Lee County is exactly where the eye of Hurricane Ian would make landfall. It brought near-Category 5 winds and storm surge that swallowed homes.
Tuesday at 7 a.m., Desjarlais announced a mandatory evacuation for Zone A and part of Zone B. Two hours later, the order expanded to all of Zone B. By 2 p.m., officials included parts of Zone C.
Thousands of residents in those areas had about a day to get out. The hurricane made landfall at 3:05 p.m. Wednesday.
“I’ve been in the business of local government and county management for many, many years,” Desjarlais said during the afternoon news conference, watched by about 8,000 people on Facebook. “I don’t remember the last time we had to manage a hurricane that was as difficult as this one.”
Morong said she felt more informed by local weather reports by news stations than by her county’s officials.
“I may not have evacuated if it had not been for the news reports,” Morong said. “They were the ones who told us of the severity of the storm surge and the danger.”
Neither Lee nor Collier county officials responded to Friday emails and voicemails asking questions about evacuations.
But Friday afternoon, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Division of Emergency Management chief Kevin Guthrie defended the evacuation decisions for Southwest Florida, saying the storm’s uncertain path left officials few options.
“This particular storm went everywhere from the Keys, all the way up to the Big Bend, and even a little bit further west of that, and then back,” Guthrie said.
He said that for Lee County to have successfully evacuated everyone would have taken 48 hours, but at that time, Hurricane Ian was still projected to hit well north of Tampa, closer to Gainesville.
“They made the best decision they could based on the information they had at the time and when the information came in that they needed to evacuate, they did not hesitate,’’ Guthrie said. “They immediately pulled the trigger.”
DeSantis added that he and Guthrie had emphasized the uncertainty of the forecasts, as well as that storm surge and flooding were possible for Southwest Florida.
“People were made aware,” he said. “They were told about the dangers and some people just made the decision that they did not want to leave.”
Officials have said it’s difficult to know how many people sheltered in place in the hardest hit areas of Southwest Florida where mandatory evacuation orders would eventually be in effect. On Friday, emergency crews were still conducting searches for both the living and the dead, including a rescue swimmer who found a fully submerged house with likely “human remains” inside, Guthrie said.
The death toll stood at an estimated 35 on Friday and is expected to rise.
Millions of people lost power and nearly all of Charlotte and Lee counties remained “off the grid,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday, saying the infrastructure in those areas was so damaged that rebuilding would have to come first.
Some residents of beachfront Lee County homes said they felt crunched for time, clueless that Hurricane Ian was heading for them until it was too late. Thinking the storm would fall elsewhere, one woman hosted her Tampa-based granddaughter and nine other grandchildren.
How much time is enough?
Long before disaster strikes, county government officials in charge of emergency management calculate the number of hours they believe it will take each zone to evacuate. Using the shorter of those “clearance time” estimates, the residents living within the mandatory evacuation zones of Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties had enough time, with a few hours to spare, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis.
But compared to the worst-case scenario estimates, which one Lee County government document describes as “100% of the people in each zone evacuating at the same time,” both Lee and Collier’s mandatory evacuation orders would have fallen hours short.
The Times used the “clearance time” estimates for how long it takes to leave the affected county, which the state Division of Emergency Management said is a metric commonly used by county governments.
The same document also notes that Southwest Florida is “the hardest place in the country to evacuate in a disaster,” because of the large population and limited road system.
Cara Cuite, a specialist in the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University who studied evacuations after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, said there are multiple reasons why people wouldn’t leave in a storm, and that they’re often compounding.
Perceived risk is just part of it, she said. Often people may lack the financial resources, access to transportation, or access to phones or the internet to get early notice of orders.
Cuite said it’s too early to tell how Florida’s evacuations went, but that evacuations take time, and it’s difficult to spread the word when notices come in the evening.
“It’s hard to do it in a snap,” she said. “That’s certainly a challenge, of how do you get the word out to people especially when they’re sleeping.”
Like Cuite, multiple experts in emergency management said it’s premature to tell if Florida’s evacuation orders could have been handled differently, when there’s not yet a full accounting of how many people had to be rescued from the storm-soaked parts of Southwest Florida.
Jerry Richards, 54, weathered Hurricane Ian on a boat in Fort Myers Beach. He avoided fleeing to his mother’s home in Hillsborough County, where he worried about intense storm surge, only to bear the brunt of the storm farther south.
”When they said it was going this way, it was too late to do anything,” he said.
Bryan Koon, the former director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said Southwest Florida can be particularly difficult to evacuate because of the lack of infrastructure inland. People in Naples, for example, can’t just drive a few miles east — they’ll be in the swamps of Big Cypress or the Everglades.
The road networks in Florida also aren’t set up to support a mass evacuation, since people have to either take I-75 north or to Miami, he said.
Messaging the importance of evacuation to people is a blend of explaining the science, approaching the psychology and a bit of peer pressure, Koon said.
Storm surge in particular can be difficult for emergency managers to convey, Koon said. For some Floridians, Ian’s landfall Wednesday may have been the first time they truly absorbed it.
“It doesn’t seem believable until people see it,” he said.
Craig Fugate, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency director and a Florida resident, said evacuations around Hurricane Ian reminded him of Hurricane Charley in 2004.
He said because of the differing media market sizes, the messaging on potential impacts is more likely to center around Tampa Bay, where more people live.
He said in general, there’s still a problem communicating that an entire area is at threat when a hurricane comes, especially as forecasts continue to shift.
“It doesn’t help when the national media immediately flocks to one location and that’s your headline time and time again,” Fugate said. “Perception, for a lot of people, is reality.”
Times staff writer Zachary T. Sampson and Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.
FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.
THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?
WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.
SCHOOLS: Will schools reopen quickly after Hurricane Ian passes? It depends.
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.