Officials in hard-hit Lee County, Florida, are facing growing questions over why the first mandatory evacuations were ordered just a day before Hurricane Ian made landfall — despite an emergency plan that suggests evacuations should have happened sooner.
Lee County’s evacuation orders also came a day or more after those of neighboring counties to the north.
The county’s comprehensive emergency management plan says a 10 percent chance of 6 feet or more of water would indicate “the need” for hurricane evacuations in the most vulnerable areas.
The National Hurricane Center’s recommendations, reviewed by CNN, first mention a “4-7 foot wave” for the area as early as 11:00 p.m. ET Sunday — three days before landfall. This storm surge was forecast for an area from Englewood to Bonita Beach — which encompasses the entire Lee County coast.
At 8 a.m. ET Tuesday, around the time of the first evacuation call, the NHC raised the storm surge forecast to 5 to 10 feet. And at 11 a.m. ET, the forecast was expanded to 8-12 foot storm surge for all of Lee County.
The county’s first announcement of mandatory evacuations didn’t come until Tuesday morning. In a news conference around 7 a.m. ET on Tuesday, county officials announced mandatory evacuations for the county’s most vulnerable “Zone A” and portions of “Zone B.”
The county opened its first shelters Tuesday at 9 a.m. ET. Later that day, the district expanded the order to include all of Zone B.
Other counties on Ian’s path, such as Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties, spent the day Monday issuing evacuation orders. And even before Hillsborough County issued the formal order, Tampa’s mayor was urging the public to evacuate.
“If you can go, just go now and we’ll take care of your personal belongings,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor told Kate Bolduan on CNN’s At This Hour Monday around 11 a.m. ET.
GOP Sen. Rick Scott, under pressure from CNN’s Dana Bash, declined to pin the blame on Lee County, saying, “We’re going to look and find out” if proper evacuation procedures were followed. “I think when we’ve gotten through this, we’ll do an evaluation. What I’ve always tried to do as governor is to say, okay, what did we learn from each one of them.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Lee County officials have defended the county’s decision-making process, pointing to a changing forecast route that moves the worst impacts south closer to landfall.
At a news conference Monday, a day before the evacuation order was issued, Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais dismissed the notion that Hurricane Ian was more difficult to plan for than other storms. He said the fact that his county was within the predicted track of the storm’s center days earlier suggested the storm would eventually shift elsewhere.
“A few days ago, Fort Myers, Lee County was right in the center of the cone of…uncertainty, and that’s really the best place to be out for three or four days because the storm is never going to behave like that,” Desjarlais said . “So these variables always exist, and we train and plan for any changes in the characteristics of the storm.”
Desjarlais said Monday that although the county has yet to issue an evacuation order, residents should feel free to leave.
“If you’re a little nervous about this storm and the aftermath, you can go now if you want,” said Desjarlais. “So if you’re up for it and think it’s a good idea, now is a good time to get out there and head to a safer part of the state.”
The delays were first reported by the New York Times, and Lee County Commissioner Kevin Ruane, in an interview with Boris Sanchez on CNN’s New Day Sunday, backtracked on the Times report, calling the report “inaccurate” and defending the schedule.
“Unfortunately, people got complacent,” Ruane said when discussing why people might not have been evacuated sooner. “As far as I’m concerned the shelters were open, they had the opportunity, they had all Tuesday, they had a good part of Wednesday when the storm hit – they had the opportunity.”
And Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson told CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday morning that “Hurricane season warnings begin in June.” So there is a certain responsibility here. I think the district did the right thing. The thing is, a certain percentage of people will still ignore the warnings.”
CNN’s Keith Allen and Andy Rose contributed to this report