Officials in Florida’s hardest-hit Lee County are facing mounting questions about why the first mandatory evacuation wasn’t ordered until a day before Hurricane Ian made landfall — even though an emergency plan says it should have happened sooner.
The evacuation order in Lee County was also a day or more behind the evacuation order in neighboring counties to the north.
The county’s comprehensive emergency management plan states that there is a 10 percent chance that 6 feet or more of water “indicates the need” for hurricane evacuation in the most vulnerable areas.
The National Hurricane Center, reviewed by CNN, recommended the first mention of a “4-7-foot surge” in the region as early as 11 p.m. ET Sunday, three days before landfall. This level of surge is expected from Englewood to Bonita Beach, which includes the entire Lee County coast.
At 8 a.m. ET Tuesday, around the time the first evacuation information was issued, the NHC raised its storm surge forecast to 5-10 feet. At 11 a.m. ET, a storm surge of 8-12 feet is forecast to expand throughout Lee County.
The county didn’t first announce a mandatory evacuation until Tuesday morning. During a news conference Tuesday around 7 a.m. ET, county officials announced a mandatory evacuation of parts of the county’s most vulnerable “Zone A” and “Zone B.”
The county also opened its first batch of shelters at 9 a.m. ET Tuesday. Later in the day, the county expanded the order to all areas of District B.
Other counties in Ian’s path, such as Hillsboro, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties, were issuing evacuation orders Monday. Even before Hillsborough County issued an official order, the mayor of Tampa had urged the public to evacuate.
“If you can leave, leave now, and we’ll take care of your personal property,” Tampa Mayor Jane Custer said Monday on CNN’s At This Hour at around 11 a.m. ET Tell Kate Bolduan.
Republican Senator Rick Scott, under pressure from CNN’s Danabash, declined to pin the blame on Lee County, saying “we will investigate and find out” whether proper evacuation procedures were followed. “I think once we’ve done that, we’ll have an assessment. As governor, what I’ve been trying to do is say, OK, so what have we learned in each one.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Lee County officials defended the county’s decision-making process, noting that the changing projected trajectory shifts the worst impacts south closer to landfall.
At a news conference Monday, the day before the evacuation order was issued, Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais rejected plans for Hurricane Ian to be more challenging than other storms. He said his county was within the forecast track for the center of the storm a few days ago, suggesting the storm will eventually move elsewhere.
“A few days ago, Fort Myers, Lee County was right in the middle of the … uncertainty cone, which is really the best place to be, and three or four days later, because the storm is never going to do that,” Desjarlais said. “So these variables are always there, and we train and plan for all the changes in storm characteristics.”
Desjarlais said Monday that although the county has not issued an evacuation order, residents should be free to leave.
“If you’re a little nervous about this storm and its effects, you can go now if you want,” Desjarlais said. “So if you want and think it’s a good idea, now is a good time to hit the road and head to safer parts of the state. opportunity.”
The delay was first reported by The New York Times, and Lee County Commissioner Kevin Ruan rebutted the Times’ report in an interview with Boris Sanchez on CNN New Day Sunday, calling it “inaccurate.” And defend the timeline.
“Unfortunately, people do get complacent,” Ruane said of why people may not have been evacuated sooner. “As far as I’m concerned, the shelters are open, they have the ability, all day Tuesday, they were in the storm for most of Wednesday – they have the ability to do that.”
Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson told CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday morning, “The warning for hurricane season starts in June. So there’s a level of personal responsibility here. I think the county has taken appropriate steps. Act. The problem is that a certain percentage of people will not heed the warnings anyway.”
CNN’s Keith Allen and Andy Rose contributed to this report