WHEN KEEPING OUT A weather eye for news updates as a strengthening tropical system wanders toward land, these are the words no one wants to hear: Your zone has been called for mandatory evacuation. Yet heeding that command could save your life.
Still, confusion abounds about evacuation orders, in part spurred by how some authorities have communicated during recent emergencies. How much head’s up before the storm will local officials give you that evacuation orders might be coming for your zone? How soon after authorities issue an order do you need to leave? How far do you really need to travel to reach safety? Should you consider leaving even if authorities have not called for your zone to evacuate — or at least they haven’t called your zone yet?
State law requires all counties to submit updated Comprehensive Emergency Management Plans (CEMP) at least once every four years. A major revision in these plans began taking place in the past few years when the old evacuation maps, which were based upon the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale storm categories, were converted to reflect the National Hurricane Center’s new storm surge danger models. These county plans and their evacuation zone map updates are based upon regional evacuation studies, with the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council preparing the study for the counties from Collier to Sarasota. Some, but not all, counties’ CEMPs are published on their respective county government websites.
According to one of the emergency planning publications produced by the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council: “Southwest Florida has been identified by the National Weather Service as one of the most hurricane-vulnerable areas of the United States. As such, the potential for large-scale loss of life and property during a hurricane is great.”
Further complicating the region’s hurricane vulnerability is the West Florida Shelf, a bedrock structure that extends up to 120 miles into the Gulf of Mexico that creates a shallow bottom in the waters off Florida’s west coast. Higher storm surges occur on coasts with wide, gently sloping continental shelves because the water piles atop the shelves during hurricanes.
This hurricane-vulnerability assessment emphasizes the need for local emergency management departments to maintain robust plans for hurricane safety. The Lee County Department of Public Safety’s webpage about evacuation clearance times identifies an additional complication that impacts hurricane emergency plans in the area: “Southwest Florida has been identified as the hardest place in the country to evacuate in a disaster due to our large population and limited road system. What does this mean for you? You need to evacuate early and absolutely no later than when an evacuation order is given.”
The department continues by stating that, because of the limited roadway infrastructure, it could take up to 41 hours to mass evacuate people if relocating them in-county and up to 89 hours if the population must be evacuated out of Southwest Florida entirely. While not mentioned, if a threat were so grave it required the populace of Lee County to leave the region entirely, likely everyone from Collier over to Glades and up to Sarasota counties would also be on the roads. While these evacuation clearance times appear to be based upon a worst-case scenario of evacuating everyone who lives in any vulnerable zone — all of Lee County except for the southeasterly portion of Lehigh Acres — the lengthy timeline coupled with the area’s hurricane- and storm-surge vulnerabilities still point to the need for authorities to make mandatory evacuation decisions early and communicate the dangers clearly and regularly to the populace.
“You get out in front of emergencies, and you lead people through them,” said FOX Weather hurricane specialist Bryan Norcross, the former executive director of weather content and presentation for The Weather Channel who is known for his Hurricane Andrew meteorological coverage. “You tell people what’s coming next and when you’re going to have more information. You are reliable about it, and they learn that.”
Evacuations are tricky for governments to manage because having the populace either evacuate or remain in place both involve risks and costs. Many counties call for evacuations in phases, with low-lying coastal Zone A as well as mobile homes — the populations most vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes — called first. This approach attempts to manage evacuation issues such as traffic congestion on roads. Evacuation orders prompt the twin issues of people in mandatory zones who refuse to leave as well as so-called “shadow evacuations” by people in non-mandated zones who nonetheless choose to leave. Shadow evacuees place additional impact upon evacuation resources and infrastructure.
“There are a lot of people who just generally tend to not want to be in a hurricane impact zone, especially if it means a one-month power outage in the middle of summer,” said Jonathan Vigh, Ph.D., a National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) scientist involved in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project (HFIP) to develop the HurricaneRiskCalculator web app for the public. “But the other thing people don’t consider is that, if people en masse get up and leave and you have millions of people on the road, there are going to be some people who just die due to traffic accidents. In Hurricane Rita (in 2005), which was a large mass evacuation, most of the people killed in Rita in the U.S. were actually people evacuating and not due to the storm itself. Rita showed it could actually be hazardous to participate in a mass evacuation. About one in 29,000 people who participated in that evacuation ended up dying, which we’d like the odds to be better if you’re doing what your supposed to be doing.”
Florida has its own experience with evacuation chaos on the roads from 2017’s Hurricane Irma, when about 6.5 million people evacuated. During a morning press conference on Sunday, Sept. 25, three days before Hurricane Ian made landfall, Florida Emergency Management director Kevin Guthrie referred to 2 million of those people as having over-evacuated when he asked Floridians to double check the evacuation zones for their addresses as well as the sturdiness of their homes. He stated that people whose zones weren’t called and who lived in sturdy structures could choose to prepare for sheltering in place during Ian.
In the same press conference, Gov. Ron DeSantis said, “With Irma, there was an over-evacuation, and so when you put people on the road, that’s not cost-free. I mean, there’s traffic. There’s fatalities on the road. So, you want to be very careful about doing that.”
On Monday, Sept. 26, counties from Charlotte up through the Tampa Bay area and further north started issuing mandatory evacuation orders for entire zones after the National Hurricane Center issued storm surge watches for Florida’s vulnerable west coast from the Keys to the Panhandle. Meanwhile, in Lee County, the county manager Roger Desjarlais said in a 3 p.m. press conference that local officials would monitor the National Weather Service overnight forecasts about storm conditions before making the decision the next day about whether or not to call for evacuations or to open shelters, referencing how the cone of uncertainty had shifted during the life of the storm.
“To try and define exactly what portions of Zone A we’ll call for evacuation is impossible to tell at the moment,” Mr. Desjarlais said. He also said, for barrier island residents, that “if you’re feeling unsafe, and if you’re feeling a little nervous about this storm and the effects, it’s okay to go now,” saying the roads would be less crowded than they would be “if, in fact, we call for evacuations tomorrow morning.”
Lee and Collier counties did not issue mandatory evacuation orders until Tuesday, Sept. 27. Lee was the single county that called only selected geographical portions of some zones to evacuate versus the simpler and clearer method of calling for entire zones to evacuate. The county added to the evacuation orders during the day as the storm surge forecasts kept increasing, from the 7 a.m. call for Zone A with only part of Zone B through adding the rest of Zone B at 8:45 a.m. Then, at 1:45 p.m., officials added a portion of Zone C.
The areas called to evacuate in that single day included not only the vulnerable islands with evacuation routes limited by bridges but also much of Cape Coral, Lee County’s most populous city which itself is somewhat geographically limited for evacuation routes by the fact it is located on a low-lying peninsula honeycombed with canals for storm surge to flow up.
The regional evacuation study estimated operational in-county clearance time for the areas Lee called at roughly 20 hours from when local officials made the first mandatory evacuation orders at 7 a.m., based on 2020 population estimates. (Operational evacuation clearance estimates assume real-world behaviors where some people do not evacuate from mandatory zones, and in-county clearance assumes evacuees travel a short distance to shelter elsewhere within the same county.) This placed the probable shelter arrival time for the last of the evacuees at 3 a.m. Wednesday morning, while bands of rain — some heavy — had been moving through the area during much of the evacuation period.
The messages from the state officials and Lee County government about evacuations for Ian contrast to the information on the Lee County’s Public Safety department webpage that recommends evacuating ahead of time or being ready to leave immediately upon issuance of evacuation orders because of Southwest Florida’s limited road infrastructure. The scenario on the webpage seems to assume that people who are waiting to learn if they even need to evacuate would already have their storm shutters up and would have their vehicles packed to the roofs with everything from important documents to cat litter, simply waiting for an order from county authorities to hit the road.
Estimates about how many people evacuate from hurricanes come from studies performed by traffic engineers, so those estimates for Ian likely won’t be available until next summer. What is currently known is how many people made use of each county’s storm shelters, which would be a portion of the people who evacuated. County government public information officers provided the following shelter-use numbers: Charlotte County sheltered 1,448 people, Lee County about 4,000 and Collier County sheltered about 1,300. These numbers are lower than the number of people who used county shelters during Irma.
When Florida Weekly requested to interview the county governments about how evacuation procedures might change in the future, the paper received the following replies:
Charlotte County communications manager Brian Gleason wrote by email: “Sorry for the delayed response. We’re going to pass on discussing future evacuation issues for now. We are deep into the Ian recovery and will review everything about our prep, response and recovery at the appropriate time in the future.”
Lee County communications director Betsy Clayton wrote by email: “We appreciate your inquiry. However, staff is still actively working the response effort and has not yet had any after-action review discussions. It would be premature to set up this interview topic at this time. Feel free to check back later. For now, if it is helpful, here is the explanation we provided other media outlets: Evacuation determinations are not made in a vacuum. They’re a collaborative decision made based on the totality of known circumstances and factors at that time — responsibility does not fall to any one person. Evacuation orders are typically issued based on storm surge projections. So as the forecasting for a system shifts, storm surge projections invariably shift with it. The day before Ian’s anticipated landfall, storm surge predictions drastically increased — forecasting historic surge levels impacting evacuation zones A, B, and parts of C. Based on this modeling, we issued the corresponding evacuation orders and encouraged residents to seek shelter.”
Collier County communications manager Debbie Curry only answered the question about shelter numbers and did not acknowledge that Florida Weekly had made multiple requests for an interview.
The responses have left Florida Weekly with only the counties’ Comprehensive Emergency Management Plans and county websites to speak on behalf of the county governments regarding the future of evacuations.
While Charlotte County does have educational material for the public regarding evacuation zones and household disaster planning, the county does not appear to have its CEMP posted on its website for the public to learn the policies county emergency managers use to make evacuation decisions. Collier County does post its CEMP on its website; while it discusses evacuations, it doesn’t provide the exact criteria by which officials would make evacuation decisions.
Lee County posts its CEMP on its website, and page 393 of the over-500- page plan includes a detailed chart of surge height and probability called a Surge Evacuation Decision-Making Matrix. According to this chart, if the National Hurricane Center or National Weather Service were to forecast a 10% probability of a 6-foot storm surge then county officials should evacuate Zone A. None of the other county CEMPs that Florida Weekly reviewed (Collier, Hillsborough and Monroe) includes such a meticulous and specific decision making tool for determining when to order storm surge evacuations.
The National Hurricane Center posted a storm surge watch for Lee County at 11 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25, predicting 4-7 feet of surge, as part of the surge watches from the Keys to the Panhandle. This was before Ian had even strengthened into a hurricane. At 11 a.m. Monday, Sept. 26, the storm surge prediction held steady, and NHC posted this additional forecast statement: “Life-threatening storm surge is possible along much of the Florida west coast, with the highest risk from Fort Myers to the Tampa Bay region. Residents in these areas should listen to advice given by local officials.”
“Those protocols are designed with FEMA input and state input, so they’re there so that the county officials don’t have to make difficult decisions,” Mr. Norcross said. “If the National Hurricane Center puts out a forecast, and if that forecast meets the standards of those protocols, then they’re supposed to call for evacuations. It’s explicit — it’s not fuzzy. The data was there. They didn’t follow their rules, so why didn’t they do that? To hear them talk, the cone threw them off, but it shouldn’t throw them because they’re the ones with the protocols already in place. Why didn’t they follow their protocol when the forecast was explicit? It’s the most vulnerable place with a significant population on the whole coast. The land is two or three feet above the water level, and we’re talking about (storm surge) 7 feet above dry ground.”
Mr. Norcross published a Facebook post on October 20 titled “My Opinion: Two steps toward clearer communications during a hurricane threat.” Among the changes he recommended, he called upon FEMA to design a public communications framework that public officials and emergency managers could follow, which would provide them a timeline and an emergency communications template for explaining to the public the nature of the threat and when to expect updates about possible evacuations so that the public is motivated to act if the threat manifests as an emergency. However, to work, it would require that local officials follow the pre-written plan.
“This namby-pamby communication style is a big problem,” Mr. Norcross said. “Don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth at the same time. If you’re going to say that there is a risk and that we’re going to have to order evacuations, then say it directly. Don’t say, ‘But you might not want to pay attention to it because it might not happen.’ You figure out what your message is, you say it, you don’t dilute it — that’s basic emergency communication.” ¦
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