FORT MYERS, Fla. – As Hurricane Ian hits Florida’s west coast this week, warnings from forecasters are getting more urgent. Life-threatening storm surge threatens to flood the area from Tampa to Fort Myers.
But while officials along much of that coast responded to an evacuation order on Monday, emergency managers in Lee County delayed, weighing during the day whether to tell people to flee, but then decide how the forecast develops overnight.
The delay, a clear violation of the meticulous evacuation strategy the county had developed for such an emergency, may have contributed to the dire consequences that are still being noticed as numbers deaths continue to increase.
Dozens of people have died entirely in the state, officials said, as Ian, downgraded to post-tropical cyclone, moved over North Carolina and Virginia on Saturday, at one point causing Nearly 400,000 electricity customers in those states lost power.
About 35 of Florida’s hurricane-related deaths have been identified in Lee County, the highest damage toll anywhere in the state, as survivors describe sudden surges – predicted was likely by the National Hurricane Service in the days before the storm made landfall – that caused some of them to scramble for safety in attics and rooftops.
Lee County, which includes the hard-hit coastal community of Fort Myers Beach, as well as the towns of Fort Myers, Sanibel and Cape Coral, has not issued mandatory evacuation orders for potentially affected areas. The hardest hit came Tuesday morning, a day after several neighboring counties ordered their most vulnerable residents to flee.
Later, some residents reported that they had little time to evacuate. Dana Ferguson, 33, a medical assistant in Fort Myers, said she was at work when the first text message popped up on her phone Tuesday morning. By the time she got home, it was too late to find anywhere to go, so she crouched down with her husband and three children to wait as a wall of water began to spill over parts of Fort. Myers, including some areas away from the coastline.
“I feel like I don’t have enough time,” she said.
Ms. Ferguson said she and her family fled to the second floor, carrying a generator and rations as water surged across their living room. 6 year old child in tears.
Kevin Ruane, Lee County commissioner and former mayor of Sanibel, said the county had postponed the widespread evacuation order because previous storm patterns showed the storm was moving further north.
“I think we reacted as quickly as we could,” he said.
Governor Ron DeSantis and his director of emergency management also said previous forecasts had predicted the intensity of the storm to hit further north.
“There’s a difference between a hurricane that will make landfall in northern Florida and will have peripheral effects on your area, versus a hurricane,” Mr. DeSantis said at a news conference Friday in Lee County. direct impact of storms. “And what I see in southwest Florida is, when the data changes, they start to work.”
But while Hurricane Ian’s path had shifted closer to Lee County in the days before it made landfall, the risk of storm surge faced by the county – even with its more northerly path – has become apparently as early as Sunday night.
At that point, the National Hurricane Center created a model showing the likelihood of a high tide covering much of Cape Coral and Fort Myers. Areas of Fort Myers Beach, even in that case, have a 40% chance of a 6-foot high tide, according to the surge forecast.
Lee County’s emergency planning documents outlined a timing strategy, noting that the area’s large population and limited road system make it difficult to evacuate the county quickly. Over the years of work, the county has created a phased approach that expands the scope of evacuation in proportion to the certainty of the risk. The documents say: “Serious events may require decisions with little certainty.
The county plan recommends an initial evacuation if there is even a 10% chance that storm surge will be 6 feet above ground level; Based on a sliding scale, the plan also calls for evacuation if there is a 60% chance of a 3-foot high tide.
Along with Sunday night’s projections, Monday’s updated forecasts warn that many areas of Cape Coral and Fort Myers have a 10 to 40 percent chance of storm surge higher than 6 feet, with some the area can see water rising more than nine feet.
During those Monday hours, neighboring Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties issued evacuation orders, while Sarasota County announced that it expected the evacuation order to go into effect the next morning. . In Lee County, however, officials said they were waiting to issue a more up-to-date assessment the next morning.
“Once we have a better understanding of all those dynamics, we will have a better understanding of the areas where we can call for evacuations and, at the same time, determine which shelters will be opened. ,” Lee County Administrator Roger Desjarlais said Monday afternoon.
But the National Hurricane Center forecasters have been increasingly clear in their warnings for the region. In their 5 p.m. update Monday, they wrote that the highest risk for “life-threatening storm surge” was in the area from Fort Myers to Tampa Bay.
“Residents in these areas should heed the advice of local officials,” the storm center wrote. New modeling shows that some areas along Fort Myers Beach are more likely not to see 6-foot elevation gains.
Ruane, the county commissioner, said that one challenge the county faces is that local schools have been designed as shelters and the school board has decided to keep them open on Monday.
The next morning, at 7 a.m. Tuesday, Mr Desjarlais announced a partial evacuation order but stressed that “the areas to be evacuated were small” compared with an evacuation during the previous storm.
The county has suspended further evacuations, despite a forecast indicating a potential spike into areas not covered by the order. Officials extended the evacuation order later tomorrow morning.
By mid-afternoon, Lee County officials were more urgent in their advice: “Now is the time to evacuate, and the windows are closing,” they wrote in a Facebook announcement.
Katherine Morong, 32, said earlier this week she was getting ready to descend and weather the storm under the guidance of local officials. The sudden evacuation order on Tuesday morning left her bewildered, she said, as she got into her car in the rain.
“The county could be more proactive and could give us more time to evacuate,” she said. On the road east of the state, she said, she was driving through a tornado rain, with tornadoes nearby.
Joe Brosseau, 65, said he did not receive any evacuation notices. He said when the high tide began to pour on Wednesday morning, he considered evacuating but realized it was too late.
He climbed a ladder with his 70-year-old wife and dog to reach the crawl space in his garage. He carried his tools in case he needed to break through the roof to escape.
Mr Brosseau said: “It was horrifying. “It was the absolute scariest thing. Trying to get that dog and my wife up a ladder to get to the cows. And then spend six hours there. “
Some residents said they watched the forecasts but decided to stay home anyway – veterans of many past hurricanes with dire forecasts that didn’t come true.
Mr DeSantis said: “People have been aware, they have been informed of the dangers and some have made the decision that they do not want to leave.
Joe Santini, a retired physician’s assistant, said he would not leave his home even if an evacuation order was issued before the storm. He said he’d lived in the Fort Myers area most of his life, and he wouldn’t know where else to go.
“I tried to find everything else,” he said.
The water entered his home around dusk Wednesday night, and by Friday there was still a trail of water about a foot above the floor – leaving Mr. Santini slightly stunned. “I don’t think it’s ever been as high as it used to be,” he said.
Lee County is now the epicenter of the devastation, with mass destruction at Fort Myers Beach, the collapse of part of the Sanibel Causeway and the entire surrounding area turning into rubble. When the water mains broke, the county utility agency advised residents to boil water.
President Biden on Friday said the devastation from the storm could be one of the worst in US history.
“It will take months, years to rebuild,” he said.
Lauren Sweeney, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Mitch Smith contribution report. Kirsten Noyes Contributing research.