Florida Residents Reeling After Late Evacuation Orders

Florida Residents Reeling After Late Evacuation Orders

In some of the counties hardest hit by Hurricane Ian, questions remain over the timeliness of officials' actions.

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A yacht sits run aground in the front yard of a destroyed home in Fort Myers, Florida on Sunday, October 2.
A yacht sits run aground in the front yard of a destroyed home in Fort Myers, Florida on Sunday, October 2.
Photo: Win McNamee (Getty Images)

Parts of Florida remain disaster zones in the wake of Hurricane Ian’s devastation—and, in the aftermath of the storm, some officials are coming under fire for not doing more to prepare their residents for the damage.

Lee County, which incorporates the city of Fort Myers, Pine Island, and Sanibel Island, was one of the counties hardest hit by Ian. The county only issued evacuation orders on Tuesday, giving people little time to prepare. Ian hit Fort Myers as a Category 4 storm on Wednesday afternoon. In Florida, of the more than 100 deaths recorded thus far, at least 54 are in Lee County—the highest death toll of any county in the state.

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Late Evacuation Orders in Lee County

Late Evacuation Orders in Lee County

A man looks at his destroyed business in Bonita Springs, Florida, on Saturday, October 1.
A man looks at his destroyed business in Bonita Springs, Florida, on Saturday, October 1.
Photo: Sean Rayford (Getty Images)

As NPR reported, Lee County’s evacuation order plan mandates that a 10% chance of a 6-foot storm surge is enough to trigger evacuations in certain areas. On Sunday, three days before Ian hit, the National Hurricane Center predicted between a 4- to 7-foot storm surge in the county, and that night parts of Fort Myers Beach had a 40% possibility of a 6-foot surge, the New York Times reported. Neighboring counties, including Charlotte County, were already issuing evacuation orders on Sunday.

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Hundreds of Rescues

Hundreds of Rescues

Aerial view of damage in Fort Myers, FL, on October 2.
Aerial view of damage in Fort Myers, FL, on October 2.
Photo: Win McNamee (Getty Images)

More than 800 people had to be rescued from Lee County in the days following the storm, CNN reported. And the death toll in Lee County dwarfs the toll in other counties: CNN reported that 24 people died in Charlotte County, eight in Collier County, and five or less in Volusia, Sarasota, Manatee, Polk, Lake, Hendry and Hillsborough counties.

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A Tricky Forecast

A Tricky Forecast

Charlene Flener, pictured seated in a wheelchair, in Southwest Baptist Church on Sunday, October 2; Fiener’s home was damaged during the hurricane and she is staying at the church temporarily.
Charlene Flener, pictured seated in a wheelchair, in Southwest Baptist Church on Sunday, October 2; Fiener’s home was damaged during the hurricane and she is staying at the church temporarily.
Photo: Win McNamee (Getty Images)

Hurricane predictions are often difficult to communicate to the public, and Ian had a particularly tricky journey as it made landfall. Early forecasts made as the storm began to churn toward Florida predicted that Ian would track a path north, hitting Tampa the hardest; seemingly last-minute on Tuesday, the storm tacked to the east, aiming for the counties of Lee and Collier.

“There were a lot of alternate futures that were possible,” Kim Klockow-McClain, a research scientist at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory, told the Washington Post. “Communication is not as simple when there are a lot of possible outcomes.”

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DeSantis Defends Decision

DeSantis Defends Decision

Lazaro Vento attempts to clean water out of his home in Bonita Springs, Florida, on Sunday, October 2.
Lazaro Vento attempts to clean water out of his home in Bonita Springs, Florida, on Sunday, October 2.
Photo: Sean Rayford (Getty Images)

On Saturday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis defended the timing of Lee County officials in making evacuation calls to reporters at a press conference in Fort Myers.

“They were following the data, and you remember people were looking initially at the panhandle on Sunday,” he said. “Then Monday came and people were thinking maybe north of Tampa Bay. When we went to bed Monday night, people were saying this is a direct hit on Tampa Bay, worst-case scenario for the state.”

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Evacuations Ongoing on Islands

Evacuations Ongoing on Islands

People are evacuated by boat on Pine Island on Sunday, October 2.
People are evacuated by boat on Pine Island on Sunday, October 2.
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

The 200 households on Sanibel that stayed despite mandatory evacuation orders are now stranded, thanks to the collapse of the causeway, and rescuers worked to evacuate residents over the weekend. The bridge to nearby Pine Island was also destroyed, and thousands are without electricity; the Coast Guard has launched an effort to evacuate those residents as well.

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Residents Trapped

Residents Trapped

Rescuers look for survivors in Fort Myers on Saturday, October 1.
Rescuers look for survivors in Fort Myers on Saturday, October 1.
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

Residents of Lee County told various outlets about their experiences with Ian and the challenges of the late evacuation order. Danica Ferguson, a mother of three, told the New York Times that she’d been at her job as a medical assistant when she got the text on Tuesday from the county with evacuation orders; by the time she got home, she “felt there wasn’t enough time” to evacuate. Her family had to shelter on the second floor of their home as water flooded through their living room.

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‘We Were Always in the Zone’

‘We Were Always in the Zone’

A boat is washed up onto the pier of a home in Sanibel Island on Saturday, October 1.
A boat is washed up onto the pier of a home in Sanibel Island on Saturday, October 1.
Photo: Sean Rayford (Getty Images)

“I may not have evacuated if it had not been for the news reports,” Katherine Morong, who lives in Fort Myers, told the Tampa Bay Times. “They were the ones who told us of the severity of the storm surge and the danger.”

Morong said she had been preparing to evacuate for days before the order finally came from Lee County on Tuesday morning; the lateness of the order meant it was difficult for her to find a room out of harms’ way.

“It doesn’t make sense,” she told the Times. “We were always in the zone.”

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