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DeSantis, FEMA defend Lee County evacuation amid growing questions

Florida officials on Oct. 2 called for bolstering building codes and insurance protections for residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Few events are as ripe for second-guessing public officials as hurricanes. And as we continue to try to grasp the scope of the damage done by Hurricane Ian, one big early question has emerged: Should evacuations have begun sooner in Florida’s Lee County?

The county where Fort Myers is located bore the brunt of Ian’s landfall, after the storm had previously been projected to strike farther north. Because the forecast had been focused elsewhere in the state, Lee County officials declined to order evacuations until Tuesday morning, just a day before the storm hit. The New York Times detailed that decision Friday.

Because the area is difficult to evacuate, valid questions are being asked about whether an earlier order could have prevented deaths in the county. The toll officially stands at 42 — a majority of all deaths recorded in the state — and could climb significantly higher. (The county’s sheriff said Thursday that deaths could “definitely” be in the hundreds, though he later tempered that.)

Given all of that, it’s worth running through what we know about the situation, along with how officials are explaining it.

Over the weekend, the county’s decision not to evacuate earlier was defended not only by local officials and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), but also by the Biden administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator, Deanne Criswell. Many of them keyed-on where the storm was predicted to go 72 hours before it made landfall.

“Just 72 hours before landfall, the Fort Myers and Lee County area were not even in the cone of the hurricane,” Criswell said on ABC’s “This Week.” “And as it continued to move south, the local officials immediately — as soon as they knew that they were in that threat zone — made the decisions to evacuate and get people to safety.”

Lee County Commission Chairman Cecil Pendergrass (R) added: “Seventy-two hours before the storm, we still were not in the cone. We were working off of data and went off that data.”

DeSantis repeatedly faced such questions, and he offered a similar argument, becoming combative with a CNN reporter who asked him about it.

“Where was your industry stationed when the storm hit? Were you guys in Lee County? No, you were in Tampa,” DeSantis told the reporter. “So that’s — you know, they were following the weather track, and they had to make decisions based on that. But you know, 72 hours they weren’t even in the cone, 48 hours they were on the periphery. So you’ve got to make decisions the best you can.”

DeSantis’s reelection campaign hailed his response to “the latest media spin.”

The “cone” refers to the storm’s projected path. And it’s worth noting that 72 hours before landfall, small portions of Lee County were in the National Hurricane Center’s five-day cone. That included the location where the storm would ultimately make landfall, the barrier island of Cayo Costa.

Its forecast from 11 a.m. the previous Sunday, about 76 hours before landfall, showed that the cone included Cayo Costa and another barrier island, Gasparilla, which straddles the border between Lee and Charlotte counties. It also included a sliver of Pine Island and North Captiva.

Here’s the graphic:

And here’s a zoomed-in still image from the accompanying interactive map at the time (Boca Grande is located on Gasparilla, while Cayo Costa is the island to the south):

And as Scott Dance and Amudalat Ajasa of The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang noted, being outside the cone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re outside the danger zone. Generally speaking, there’s about a 60 to 70 percent chance the storm will remain in the cone, “meaning in about one out of three cases, the storm will move outside of the cone.”

Some reports have noted that neighboring counties ordered evacuations earlier, and that’s true. But those neighboring counties, including Charlotte and Sarasota, are to the north and northwest, respectively. So they were more in the cone.

Another issue raised by the Times report and by others is Lee County’s own evacuation planning documents, which call for evacuations based on storm surges. The 2018 plan states that the entire coast — known as Zone A — should be evacuated if there is as little as a 10 percent chance of a six-foot storm surge. It also calls for evacuation if there is a 40 percent chance of a four-foot storm surge.

As of 11 p.m. Sunday, the National Weather Service warned of a potential storm surge of between 4 and 7 feet along the coast from Englewood to Bonita Beach — covering the entirety of Lee County’s coast. (The Times pointed to more granular forecasting that said Fort Myers Beach, specifically, stood a 40 percent chance of a six-foot-storm surge at the time.)

By 5 p.m. Monday, the National Hurricane Center included Fort Myers alongside Tampa as facing the highest risk of a “life-threatening storm surge.” It said a six-foot storm surge was likely for Fort Myers Beach. The following morning, Lee County officials announced a partial evacuation order but emphasized that it was limited, with the evacuations increasing and the warnings becoming more urgent as the day progressed.

But while the warnings increased Sunday and into late Monday, the Capital Weather Gang also notes that Lee County wasn’t included in the National Hurricane Center’s own hurricane warning until Tuesday morning — around the time evacuations were ordered:

That said, the Hurricane Center’s archive of Ian forecasts shows that, as its predictions of the storm’s path shifted, meteorologists did not begin to emphasize risks to the area around the eventual landfall point until about a day in advance.
It wasn’t until Tuesday morning, while Ian was passing over western Cuba, that the Hurricane Center extended a hurricane warning southward to cover the stretch of southwestern Florida coastline that would soon be devastated. Even then, the centerline for the predicted storm track passed through Tampa and wasn’t over Fort Myers until 11 p.m. that night.

At least one high-ranking official on Sunday wasn’t quite so eager to defend the decision in Lee County. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a former governor of the state, was asked repeatedly about it on CNN, and he repeatedly suggested the timing of the decision should be looked into.

“I think it’s something we have to look at to see why did it happen, because what you have to look at is how fast — even if you do it, how fast can you get people out of some of these places, because just the road structure and things like that?” Scott said.

The situation carries echoes of another one we wrote about last week, when officials in 1935 dithered on evacuating World War I veterans from work camps in south Florida ahead of what became known as the Labor Day Hurricane. The officials wanted to wait until they were sure the Florida Keys would be hit by the storm. Ultimately, the evacuation orders came too late, and an estimated 260 of them died, alongside more than 100 others. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration sought to constrain the fallout and was largely successful.

Nearly 90 years later, similar questions about the timing of evacuations — along with our ability to forecast hurricanes and contextualize those forecasts — are as valid as ever.