FORT MYERS, Fla. — Hurricane Ian was gaining strength and spiraling toward western Florida. Officials from Lee County gathered in an emergency headquarters on Sept. 26 to review their response plans.
But in Lee County, officials decided to wait until the following morning to order people to leave, citing uncertainty about Ian’s track. By then, it may have been too late for some of the most vulnerable residents. At least 54 people in the county died in storm-related deaths when Ian made landfall outside Fort Myers on Sept. 28, according to the state Medical Examiners Commission, the most of any county.
A Washington Post analysis of weather advisories, emergency notifications and interviews with local residents paints a stark picture of confusion on the ground as Ian approached. It shows how Lee County officials, focused on predictions that the storm would hit farther north, delayed acting on repeated forecasts from the National Weather Service that the county’s barrier islands and coastal areas could experience life-threatening flooding.
The situation in Lee County, where recovery is still in its early stages, underscores how, without a clear, centralized message about the storm’s dangers, some people in the path spent critical hours trying to gauge the risks on their own in deciding whether to leave.
Even after a local media outlet reported that Lee County was planning evacuations, officials waited more than 12 hours to publicly issue an order. When evacuations were announced, some residents said the warnings never reached them, and that they did not understand the extreme risk of staying until their homes were flooding.
Lee County officials did not respond to specific questions about the timing of evacuations and how residents were notified but defended their course of action overall, saying they moved quickly as forecasts changed.
“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,” county spokeswoman Betsy Clayton said in an emailed statement. “Based on this modeling, we issued the corresponding evacuation orders and encouraged residents to seek shelter.”
But as residents surveyed the devastation left by the storm, some questioned why officials did not call for evacuations sooner. “If [officials] are not concerned, and that’s who we’re supposed to have our trust in because that’s who we voted for, then we think, ‘It must be okay,’” said Jessica Silva, 41, of Cape Coral, who said she and her family scrambled to leave before Ian hit.
Ian, then a tropical storm, was churning through the Caribbean. The forecast cone was wide — models showed that after landfall in western Cuba, the eye could hit anywhere from the barrier islands outside Fort Myers to the Panhandle region sometime between Wednesday and Friday.
But the same forecasts showed Ian could bring potentially deadly storm surge to long stretches of Florida’s coastline, no matter where it landed.
A public advisory from the National Hurricane Center, issued at 11 p.m. Sunday, cautioned that an area encompassing much of the coast in Charlotte and Lee counties could see a storm surge of 4 to 7 feet. A storm surge watch from the National Weather Service said “life-threatening inundation” was possible in roughly the same area as early as Tuesday night.
As Ian intensified into a hurricane Monday, predictions about landfall remained imprecise. The country’s flagship weather forecasting model showed the storm arcing toward Tampa Bay. Models developed in Europe placed the impact zone closer to Fort Myers.
Again the National Weather Service said that, regardless of Ian’s exact track, much of the coastline would face a dangerous surge, along with fierce winds and heavy rainfall.
Armed with this information, counties north of Lee — including Charlotte, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee — announced mandatory evacuations. Charlotte County Emergency Management Director Patrick Fuller noted in a news conference that Ian could bring a “potentially life-threatening storm surge.”
Storm surge forecast,
Monday Sept. 26th
feet above ground
Storm surge forecast,
Monday Sept. 26th
feet above ground
Storm surge forecast,
Monday Sept. 26th
feet above ground
Note: Storm surge data as of 5 a.m. Monday ET
Source: NOAA (storm surge), Microsoft (buildings)
Charlotte County officials told people in high-risk areas known as Zone A to leave because surge waters were projected to top 6 feet, which triggers such evacuations in the county’s emergency plan, spokesman Brian Gleason told The Post.
Lee County was facing similar surge predictions. But officials there said they would see how the forecast evolved before deciding on mandatory evacuations.
“A couple days ago Fort Myers, Lee County, was right in the very center of the cone of uncertainty,” Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais told reporters in a 3 p.m. news conference from the county’s emergency operations center. “And that’s really the best place to be three, four days out because the storm will never, ever behave that way.”
Desjarlais said people on barrier islands should leave if they felt unsafe and wanted to avoid traffic. He also noted that low-lying areas would be the first to feel the effects of a storm surge or heavy rainfall. “But to try and define exactly what portions of Zone A we’ll call for evacuation is impossible to tell at the moment,” he added.
Soon after, the National Weather Service upgraded its storm surge watch to a storm surge warning across Florida’s southwestern coast, with a forecast of 5 to 8 feet in Lee County.
Still, Lee County did not issue an evacuation order.
The delay appears to be at odds with Lee County’s emergency management plan, which guides how officials respond to natural disasters. Under the plan, which is nonbinding, even a low risk of a storm surge exceeding 5 feet indicates that barrier islands and other high-risk areas should be evacuated.
But even as Lee County officials held off on ordering evacuations, a local news outlet reported that an order could come soon.
Beach Talk Radio, based in Fort Myers Beach, had been carrying emergency meetings and posting updates about Ian on its Facebook page as the storm developed.
Around 5 p.m. on Monday, the station wrote that it “just got word that unless there is a drastic change in the hurricane forecast, Lee County plans to call for mandatory evacuations from ZONE A tomorrow.”
Ed Ryan, who founded Beach Talk Radio with his wife, Kim, told The Post that County Commissioner Kevin Ruane told him that an evacuation was likely forthcoming. Ruane did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Fourteen hours would pass between the station’s Facebook post and Lee County’s first mandatory evacuations.
In the meantime, a wireless emergency alert from the National Weather Service went out to mobile phones in Lee and Charlotte counties, according to records provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Life-threatening STORM SURGE danger,” it read. “FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS OF LOCAL OFFICIALS.”
The day began with an early-morning alert from the National Weather Service.
Ian’s expected impact zone was shifting south. A hurricane warning was now in effect for coastal Lee and Charlotte counties, with a storm surge up to 7 feet predicted. Prepare for Category 3 conditions, it said.
At a 7 a.m. news conference, Lee County officials issued the first of three evacuation orders. Citing changes in the forecast, they called for evacuations in Zone A and some low-lying parts of Zone B.
About an hour and a half later, they expanded their evacuation order to cover all of Zone B. In Charlotte County, officials expanded their evacuation orders, too.
By afternoon, Ian was making a beeline for Fort Myers. The National Weather Service called for an 8- to 12-foot storm surge. Lee County officials expanded evacuations for a third time. People in parts of Zone C several miles inland must leave, they said.
“I don’t recall the last time we had to manage a hurricane that was as difficult as this one,” Desjarlais said in a news conference just before 2 p.m. “We now find ourselves in a position of great peril in Lee County.”
After the final evacuation order went out, Ryan, the Beach Talk Radio host, live-streamed from a largely deserted Fort Myers Beach, located on Estero Island in Lee County.
“You can see,” he said, “everybody is pretty much listening and moving off the island or hunkering down.”
Tornado warnings sounded on mobile phones in Lee and Charlotte counties overnight. Ian was roaring just off the coast. The storm’s center would move on shore just after 3 p.m. on the Lee County barrier island of Cayo Costa. Ian’s sustained winds of up to 150 mph made it the fifth-strongest landfalling hurricane in U.S. history.
Brandy Batz and her boyfriend were visiting her mother, Cathy, in Fort Myers Beach when Ian barreled toward southwest Florida. Batz said Cathy, 66, suffers from non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and has limited mobility. Evacuating would be difficult.
None of them remembered receiving evacuation notices on their phones, Batz said. As Ian approached, she gathered supplies, including lettuce for her pet guinea pig, Shelly.
Batz received a shelter-in-place alert Wednesday morning. She and companions weathered the storm in a two-story house on Estero Island.
By afternoon, a canal behind the home was overflowing and their street was underwater. They took shelter on the second floor to escape the rising surge.
Ibrahim, a student living in Fort Myers, recorded video on Wednesday from his home near the Sanibel Causeway. Ian’s storm surge could be seen enveloping the area over several hours, as the causeway grew faint in the distance.
“Everyone thought the hurricane is going to Tampa,” he told The Post. “We were expecting just a rain and some wind.”
In another part of town, Jose Genao Matos watched the storm surge engulf his entire neighborhood.
Genao, a Spanish-speaking native of the Dominican Republic, said he and his family were not aware that the waters would rise so high. He said he received alerts in English on Wednesday warning about extreme wind but did not fully understand them. “They arrived very late,” he told The Post in Spanish.
He and his mother were trapped.
The water inside rose to about 4 feet. Genao struggled to lift his heavyset mother into the attic crawl space in their two-bedroom rental house, before climbing in himself.
His sister Gabiela Genao Matos, 22, who is eight months pregnant and lives about a block away, was also trapped. She and her husband had to carve a hole through the kitchen ceiling to reach their attic crawl space, where they watched the water upend their new crib.
“I never imagined,” she said, “something like this would happen.”
Editing by Kainaz Amaria and Amanda Erickson. Video editing by Elyse Samuels. Graphics by Dylan Moriarty. Design editing by Junne Alcantara. Copy editing by Shannon Croom.