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With a Tampa hang tag on your rear-view mirror, you'll get back home quicker after a hurricane

The tags will grant people return passage through police blockades as soon as an area is deemed safe. Those without tags will have to wait in a slower line.
Color-coded hang tags are designed to help smooth the return home after a hurricane for people who live in Tampa evacuation zones.
Color-coded hang tags are designed to help smooth the return home after a hurricane for people who live in Tampa evacuation zones.
Published Feb. 28, 2019

TAMPA — From handing out sandbags to issuing weather updates, the city of Tampa has plans in place to help people prepare for hurricanes.

Now, Tampa is launching a program to help out once the big storm passes, too.

Starting next week, city residents and businesses most likely to be evacuated will be mailed a color-coded, plastic hang tag for the rear-view mirror of their vehicles as part of the city's new Hurricane Re-Entry Program.

The tags will grant people return passage through Tampa Police Department blockades as soon as an area is deemed safe.

Those without tags will have to wait in a slower line while they are vetted by law enforcement.

The program is similar to one started along Pinellas County's barrier islands in 2015.

Here are the Tampa zip codes that will receive the tags: 33602, 33605, 33606, 33609, 33611, 33616, 33619, 33629 and MacDill Air Force Base's 33621.

In general, they are going to any property south of an east-west line formed by Interstates 275 and 4, said police Sgt. Jarrett Seal.

The system is designed to ensure a more orderly return, clean-up and recovery, Seal said, while keeping away looters and gawkers.

"If Hurricane Irma taught us anything, it's that you have to be prepared," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "That's why we're introducing these hurricane re-entry tags now — so that when hurricane season comes around, our residents can get in and out of their neighborhoods easily and law enforcement can identify individuals who do not live in the neighborhood."

Hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.

On Monday, the city will begin mailing nearly 53,000 tags, Seal said, for most of the homes and business in the designated areas.

The city also will deliver around 13,000 to apartment complexes for manager to distribute to renters — but only once an evacuation is ordered, Seal said. The tags have no expiration dates.

Each tag will include the last two digits of the zip code and is color coded — green for Harbour Island, orange for Davis Islands, red for businesses in other neighborhoods and yellow for all other residences.

Police will pull over anyone seen driving in a zip code that doesn't match the tag, said Officer Mark Barry.

"It also gives us a scalable system," Barry said.

For instance, if only Davis Islands and Harbour Island are evacuated, perimeters will only be set up and tags checked in those areas.

Anyone who needs more than one tag, or who loses one, can buy another for $5 at the city website.

Still, the website asks that businesses distribute tags only to employees "who would need to assist with damage assessment and clean up to restore operations."

Anyone moving into a designated zip code after the free tags are given out can also buy one.

The Pinellas County program was activated in 2017 after evacuations were ordered with the approach of Hurricane Irma.

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"Citizens were able to return to their homes and businesses in an orderly and timely manner using the access permit," said Cpl. Dan DiFrancesco of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

"The effort proved to be effective in keeping homes and business properties as safe as possible following the mandatory evacuations."

People who received the tags in Tampa should residents should store them immediately in the glove box of their primary vehicle, said police spokesman Steve Hegarty.

"If you receive one in your mailbox, please do not accidentally throw it away in the envelope," Hegarty said.

The tags will arrive in a white envelope, he said, labeled, "City of Tampa Hurricane Hang Tag Enclosed."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.