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Florida officials face questions over the late evacuation order in Lee County

People clear debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, on Friday.
Giorgio Viera
AFP via Getty Images
People clear debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, on Friday.

At least 42 people are dead in Lee County, one of the areas hardest-hit by Hurricane Ian where rescue and recovery efforts are still ongoing.

Local officials are now facing questions about why they didn't urge people in the path of the destructive Category 4 hurricane to evacuate sooner.

Last Sunday — three days before the storm landed on the peninsula — the National Hurricane Center predicted that Ian could bring a storm surge of 4 to 7 feet from Englewood to Bonita Beach, which includes all of coastal Lee County.

According to the county's emergency management plan from 2018, even a 10% chance of a six-foot storm surge is enough to prompt the evacuation of Zone A. That includes the barrier islands, the shoreline and inland areas along the Caloosahatchee River.

But officials didn't order a mandatory evacuation at that time, even as neighboring Charlotte County required residents to go on Monday.

Instead, Lee County authorities waited until Tuesday to institute mandatory evacuations for people expected to be in the areas most impacted by the storm.

Authorities first ordered the mandatory evacuation of Zone A and parts of Zone B before ultimately expanding it to include all of Zone B and parts of Zone C.

That was the same day the NHC raised the storm surge prediction for Lee County to 5 to 10 feet.

By Wednesday afternoon, Hurricane Ian made mainland landfall near Punta Gorda, just north of Lee County.

Florida officials defended the decision to evacuate one day before the storm

Local authorities suggested that the rapidly changing forecast in the days and hours before Hurricane Ian hit the peninsula made it difficult to decide whether to order an evacuation.

Lee County Commission Chairman Cecil Pendergrass said during a Sunday press conference that a few days before the hurricane landed on shore, the county remained outside of the "cone" meteorologists use to visually represent a storm's possible path.

"Seventy-two hours before the storm, we still were not in the cone," Pendergrass said. "We were working off of data and went off that data."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also defended the decision by Lee County officials to order an evacuation when they did.

"But you know — 72 hours, they weren't even in the cone, 48 hours they were on the periphery. So you gotta make the decisions as best you can," he said on Sunday.

The cone, however, only shows the possible path of the center of a storm, according to the NHC, which says the graphic is often misunderstood.

The agency says that dangerous weather conditions often occur outside of the cone. The NHC also urges people not to use the cone to determine if they should evacuate. Rather, it suggests residents listen to their local emergency management agencies.

Kevin Ruane, a commissioner in Lee County, told The New York Times that another problem the county faced on Monday was that schools were open even though they had also been designated as emergency shelters.

A planning document shows the difficulty of evacuating Lee County

County officials knew that evacuating Lee County would not be easy.

A 2015document by the Lee County Emergency Management agency lays out the agency's rationale for how it decides whether to issue an evacuation and also warns about the specific challenges facing the region.

"Due to our large population and limited road system, Southwest Florida is the hardest place in the country to evacuate in a disaster," the document says.

In determining whether and how to evacuate residents who are willing and able to go, the document goes on, officials should consider the risks of evacuation, the magnitude of the storm and how disruptive an evacuation would be to residents and businesses.

The county had also estimated the amount of time it would take to evacuate residents under several different scenarios.

According to the document, it could take 20 hours to evacuate all of Zones A, B and C into emergency shelters within Lee County. That timeframe increases "dramatically" if residents attempt to leave the county altogether.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.