Cathie Perkins had worked in emergency management long enough to know that this storm was a bad one.
As Hurricane Ian barreled toward Tampa Bay, meteorologists forecasted the worst.
Pinellas County had ordered nearly 400,000 residents to evacuate. Based on studies of past evacuation behavior, Perkins, the emergency manager, expected about 35,000 to seek safety at county-run shelters.
Fewer than 6,000 showed up.
Counties across Tampa Bay saw similar results: In Hillsborough, roughly 8,000 people arrived at shelters before the storm — fewer than half of the anticipated number in need. At a Manatee County shelter that serves the medically vulnerable, staff members outnumbered evacuees.
The turnout was substantially lower than in previous storms. During Hurricane Irma in 2017, more than 23,000 evacuated to Pinellas shelters. In Hillsborough, over 30,000 sought shelter.
“That’s very concerning for me,” said Perkins, who has worked in emergency management and hurricane response in Florida for the last 30 years.
She said the underutilization of shelters is indicative of a larger issue: when evacuations are called, people don’t always leave. The decision can be life-threatening.
With each storm, county officials urge the public not to use past hurricanes to predict the future. They struggle to ensure vulnerable residents are aware of resources. They must combat misinformation and overconfidence, all the while knowing that the threat posed by storms is worsening.
Tampa Bay got lucky this time, Perkins said. Hurricane Ian made landfall near Fort Myers, 125 miles south of Tampa before cutting east across the state Sept. 29 — sparing much of the bay area from hurricane-force winds and storm surge.
But if luck had landed differently, would we have been ready?
“If your local emergency management office is putting out evacuation orders, there’s a reason,” Perkins said. “It’s because we fear for your life and safety.”
There are a myriad of reasons why some Tampa Bay residents stayed in their homes.
Of the 930,000 people ordered to evacuate from Manatee, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties during Hurricane Ian, one in five were aged 65 and over, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of census data.
Older adults accounted for nearly 60% of the 114 confirmed deaths linked to Ian as of Oct. 21.
Many residents would have had trouble evacuating without help. About 80,000 reported difficulty walking without aid, and nearly 21,000 did not have access to a car, according to the Times analysis.
Mobile and manufactured homes are in the first group ordered to leave. Those residents tend to be older, poorer and more likely to have trouble moving, according to data from the University of Minnesota. Their homes are especially vulnerable to high winds and flying debris.
Counties around Tampa Bay offer free door-to-door transportation for people who need it, but residents must sign up ahead of time. Public transportation is free during emergencies, too.
But it’s a challenge to relay that information to those who need it — like James Reynolds, a 67-year-old Hillsborough resident.
Reynolds lives in evacuation “Zone A,” which would have put him at the highest risk of harm had Hurricane Ian hit Tampa Bay.
Two days before the storm, his car broke down, leaving him stranded in his house in Boh-Nak Mobile Home Park in Tampa. The area sits about a half-mile from the water in FEMA’s Special Flood Hazard Area. If a Category 1 storm hit, the area would be sure to flood.
Reynolds had never evacuated before, but grew increasingly worried as the storm approached. He said he hadn’t known about free transportation to shelters.
In Pinellas, Bob Fisher, a resident of Vagabond Trailer Park in St. Petersburg, was unaware he lives in a mandatory evacuation zone. His trailer, off 46th street North, isn’t near the water or at risk of flooding. Still, it wouldn’t stand a chance against hurricane winds.
Fisher, 74, doesn’t own a television, computer or phone. Had the storm hit the park, his trailer would have been flattened, he said, likely with him in it.
Many older residents feared how their bodies would fare at a shelter. They carried the pain of broken hips and bad knees and were worried about sleeping on the floor. They didn’t realize until it was too late that the counties offer special assistance.
In Pinellas, only 4,414 people were registered for special services — ranging from transportation to a spot in a more supportive shelter — before the storm. That’s less than 8% of the population that could have been eligible, according to vulnerability data.
An additional 800 people in Pinellas have signed up since Hurricane Ian passed — a sizable bloc that needed help but wouldn’t have gotten it had Ian hit.
Officials try to reach people through a variety of channels: From in-person presentations at mobile home communities and condos to social media campaigns and text message updates as a storm nears, said Steve Litschauer, emergency manager for Manatee County. Each county also has a phone line that residents can call.
In Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, site traffic to evacuation maps saw an exponential increase as the hurricane approached. Emergency managers said the jump is concerning. People may know where to find their evacuation zone but wait until an emergency to make sure they’re prepared. In an average month, Hillsborough sees about 5,000 page views for its maps. There were more than a million in the week before Ian made landfall. Pinellas saw over 1.5 million unique hits.
“The information is there,” Litschauer said. “It’s available — it’s just about people selecting to read it or click on it or hear it.”
Information gaps are only half the problem, experts say: Misinformation — spread by next-door neighbors and strangers online — competes for the public’s attention ahead of each storm.
It’s not dissimilar to the communication challenges that health departments confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic. A key difference is the misinterpretation of lived experience. Somebody who has survived a storm without evacuating may feel emboldened to do the same next time.
A communication crisis
The cacophony of contradictory advice can be paralyzing for those seeking guidance.
Karen Muñoz felt overcome by uncertainty and fear as Ian rolled in.
Muñoz, 28, recently moved to St. Petersburg from Pennsylvania with her boyfriend. The couple arrived in August and were quickly met with the looming threat of a natural disaster.
As weather reports dominated the 24-hour news cycles, Muñoz felt dizzied by information overload.
She hadn’t been through this before. She didn’t know where to go for guidance or who to trust. It was the kind of scenario she wanted to talk about with a friend, but she hadn’t been in town long enough to make ties. She turned to social media instead.
“Hiiii I just arrived here!!! Should I worry about the hurricane and evacuate(?) I live on central ave and am new to florida,” she shared to a community Facebook page. “I’m really worried.”
By the next morning, more than 200 notifications filled her inbox. The comments were an emergency manager’s nightmare.
“Been in Florida 50 years, no need to leave you will be fine. I have never evacuated,” one woman posted.
“I’m in evacuation zone A (surge wise) but I live on the second floor so I feel like I’m pretty set,” another comment read.
“Ya have to ride your first one out to be a Floridian,” a local man declared.
Information in a disaster is key, experts say, but avoiding bad advice is just as important.
“Everyone seems to be an expert right now,” said Robert Weaver, a Florida Institute of Technology researcher. “That’s one of the most dangerous things about the time we live in.”
But the people in charge of evacuation orders are experts. They make decisions based on a series of complex calculations, used to predict potential harm to human life and the resources and time it would take to move people out of harm’s way, Weaver said.
Advancements in technology over the last several decades have allowed researchers and emergency managers to better understand the threat.
Experts say the ability to model wind speed, rainfall and storm surge has become more accurate.
But the path a storm will take remains highly unpredictable.
That poses one of the greatest challenges for officials charged with ordering evacuations, who must err on the side of caution. It can take up to 72 hours to evacuate parts of Tampa Bay, according to a statewide study.
“By the time everyone knows the true direction,” Litschauer said, “it’s too late if you haven’t already evacuated.”
Couple the stochastic nature of hurricanes with distrust of government and the false sense of confidence many Floridians have gained by surviving previous storms — and it’s a potentially lethal combo.
Ultimately, Muñoz, who posted on Facebook, decided to leave. She said she found support from people who shared evacuation maps and resource lists.
But several of the responses to Muñoz’s Facebook post urging her to stay mirrored the thinking held by some residents of southwest Florida.
Fort Myers Beach residents Mitch Pacyna and Bonnie Gauthier had weathered storms before. As Ian approached, they each performed personal risk assessments and decided not to evacuate. Pacyna sheltered with his partner. Gauthier bunkered with her friends. Both thought they would be safe.
It’s akin to a game of Russian Roulette.
People lean on past experiences with storms, but fail to understand that no two storms are the same. A Category 4 storm today looks different than it did 20 years ago.
As sea levels rise due to climate change, more land becomes at risk of dangerous storm surge and flooding. It’s water, not wind, experts say people should run from.
Ian’s storm surge killed Pacyna and Gauthier, who decided not to evacuate because they felt safe on their respective second floors.
Hurricane-proof windows and wind-protectant roofs also create false feelings of safety for people in surge zones. But they’re a feeble defense when a wall of water rushes land with the force of a school bus and fractures the foundation of a home.
Like the majority of people killed by Hurricane Ian, Pacyna, 74, and Gauthier, 59, drowned.
‘We just want to keep you safe’
Around Tampa Bay, there are people who — in different circumstances, with stronger safety nets or more information — may have evacuated as the storm encroached.
But there are others, like 89-year-old Jan Lavelle, who are going to accept the risk.
Lavelle’s St. Petersburg mobile home community was especially vulnerable, resting in the county’s evacuation Zone A.
Though a black bicycle was her only means of transit, she knew she could get to a shelter if she wanted to.
She was aware of a registry for transportation, and said the county often sent somebody to conduct a “last call” drive through the park in case anyone needed a ride.
But Lavelle was a few months shy of her 90th birthday, and sleeping in a shelter felt untenable. She preferred to stay home where she’d be comfortable.
“I’ve lived a long life,” she said. “I thought, ‘If it’s my time to go, so be it. If not, I’ll still be here to celebrate my 90th.’”
Lavelle stayed put, and the storm passed.
If another comes, she’ll likely do the same.
Stories like that keep emergency managers like Perkins up at night. But she said she’s not writing anybody off. It’s her job to keep trying.
“We had the transportation available. We had the shelters available,” Perkins said. “We need to find better ways to get information into people’s hands. We just want to keep you safe.”
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
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?
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.