Times Staff Writer
As Hurricane Irma takes dead aim at the Florida peninsula, the first evacuation orders were issued in Tampa Bay.
Pinellas County ordered a mandatory evacuation for all residents who in low-lying areas in Level A and all mobile homes. The evacuation will start Friday but officials told residents not to wait.
Hillsborough County issued a voluntary evacuation notice for special needs residents in Zone A.
Pasco County also recommended voluntary evacuations for all special needs residents, everyone who lives in a mobile home or flood-prone areas and all residents who live west of U.S. 19.
Hernando officials are monitoring the storm and are expected to announce a decision Friday.
If you're thinking about evacuating before this Category 5 storm makes landfall on Sunday, then here's what you need to know:
Does everyone need to flee?
No. Find out if you're in an evacuation zone, then pay attention to whether your zone has been ordered to evacuate. If you're not in an evacuation zone, you don't need to join the multitudes already clogging the highways. If you have been ordered to evacuate, though, you should go, and as soon as possible.
Should I evacuate even if I'm nowhere near the water?
No. Evacuations are based on studies of storm surge, not on wind speeds.
What does "mandatory evacuation" mean?
"Mandatory" means local officials strongly advise you to get out, but the cops won't force you out at gunpoint if you really want to stay. However, they are unlikely to come running out to save you if you change your mind. The gamble is yours.
Should I go straight to a hurricane shelter?
Only if you haven't got anywhere else to go. The shelters are for people who have been ordered to evacuate but don't have friends or family or other resources for finding shelter on their own, say at a hotel. Ideally, you should have already made arrangements at the start of hurricane season about where you would go in the event of a hurricane.
Should I try to drive all the way to Alabama or Georgia?
Your best bet is to go stay with family or friends who do not live in an evacuation zone, but who do live nearby. Experts recommend driving about 10 miles when you evacuate, not 100 miles. Florida's interstate are already clogged with evacuees from South Florida and the Florida Keys heading north. Evacuating locally will help residents in more endangered areas get out faster.
What should I do before I go?
Secure your home as best you can. Check your vehicle. Make sure you've got a full gas tank and check your tire pressure, fluids and brakes. Make sure you've got a map showing your route as well as any backup routes. Make sure you tell someone where you're going so that you won't be reported missing. Leave a phone number and notify that person when you arrive. Leave early in the morning to avoid traffic. If the roads are already too jammed to move, go back home or go to a shelter.
What should I take with me?
Clothes, water, food and any medications you need for the trip and to stay away from home for a few days. Take some non-electronic devices to keep you and your family entertained if the power goes out — a book, a deck of cards, board games. If you have a baby, make sure you take diapers and other supplies for your child. If you have a pet, don't leave it at home, but remember most shelters don't take pets. Check in advance. Finally, be a good neighbor: Check with the folks who live next door to see if anyone needs a ride.
What about my guns?
You can take those, too. Florida law says it's legal for residents fleeing a hurricane to transport loaded firearms in their vehicles without holding a concealed weapons license. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says he'd rather have people carry their guns along with them than leave them behind, where they could be stolen. He also recommends that if stopped by an officer, let them know immediately that you're carrying a firearm. Bear in mind that if you cross the state line, that state's gun laws then apply. Georgia respects and reciprocates Florida law regarding guns, but Alabama does not, so it's probably best to unload your weapon and store the ammunition elsewhere in the vehicle.
What if I need to evacuate but I don't have any way to get out?
Call this state hotline: (800) 955-5504. Gov. Rick Scott promised the state would help people get out who can't do it alone.
Once I'm out, how easily can I get back in?
It could be tricky. For instance, in Pinellas, the beach communities will be restricted at 10 a.m. Friday from the Dunedin Causeway to Tierra Verde. The restrictions will last until the storm passes and damage is assessed. Only residents, business owners and employees will be allowed re-entry until 8 a.m. Sunday, then no one will be allowed back in.
What are the roads like right now?
The traffic on the main evacuation routes is moving about as fast as a poorly motivated turtle. But the traffic is moving, and that's what counts. There's no charge right now for using the toll roads, by the way. To check on real-time Florida highway conditions, call (850) 414-4100 or toll free (866) 374-3368, or click on this Florida Department of Transportation link at fl511.com.
Will I be able to get gas on the road?
Gas stations are running short along evacuation routes around the state. The governor has ordered state troopers to provide escorts to fuel resupply trucks to get them to their destinations more quickly. GasBuddy offers a tracker to find out which gas stations have fuel, so you'll know where you can gas up.
What if my car breaks down while I'm fleeing Irma?
If you're on an interstate highway, call the Florida Highway Patrol by dialing *347 (*FHP) and report your location, and a Road Ranger vehicle will be dispatched to help you get going again. If you're not on an interstate, here's hoping you belong to the AAA. If you abandon your disabled vehicle, it will be towed and you'll have a hard time getting it back.
Times senior staff writers Caitlin Johnston and Mark Puente and senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @craigtimes.