DeSantis defends early hurricane response as questions mount over evacuations

DeSantis defends early hurricane response as questions mount over evacuations

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday defended the state’s early preparations for Hurricane Ian as questions remain over whether hard-hit areas received enough advance warning to evacuate.

DeSantis said local officials in Lee County — where Ian made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane — acted appropriately when they issued evacuation orders on Tuesday, after the storm’s forecasted path had shifted from the eastern Panhandle to Tampa Bay and eventually further south to the Fort Myers area.

Several other counties in southwest Florida and west-central Florida — including Charlotte County, immediately to the north of Lee — had issued mandatory evacuation orders for their barrier islands on Monday, offering crucial extra time for people to depart a low-lying region with few major escape routes. The National Hurricane Center warned Monday that the region from Fort Myers to Tampa Bay faced the highest risk of storm surge, regardless of Ian’s exact path.

Even so, DeSantis pointed to the ample public warnings early this week that Ian posed a catastrophic danger to the flood-prone Tampa Bay region, which had not taken a direct hit from a major hurricane in more than a century.

“When we went to bed Monday night, people were saying this is a direct hit on Tampa Bay — worst case scenario for the state,” DeSantis said during a news briefing in Fort Myers on Saturday.

The Republican governor’s defense is part of what could become a long debate about the region’s warnings and preparations for Ian, one of the most destructive hurricanes ever to hit the United States.

The storm struck 18 years after another Category 4 hurricane, Charley, similarly crashed ashore in southwest Florida after being forecast to hit Tampa Bay. That incident prompted meteorologists and emergency managers to warn against focusing too obsessively on the “skinny black line” of a hurricane forecast track, urging people to pay more attention to the wider swath of expected winds and surge.

Other hurricanes, including Sandy in 2012, have prompted changes in the National Weather Service’s communications strategies and raised questions about the adequacy of the United States’ computerized hurricane models.

Ian killed at least 44 people, according to reports from the state’s medical examiners. Some media reports had the fatality total as high as 50, and the number will surely climb.

Parts of Lee County, including Fort Myers, which is near where the hurricane made landfall, suffered catastrophic damage from the storm, with buildings leveled, streets flooded and entire city blocks reduced to rubble.

“Predicting the track of this storm has not been an easy task,” Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said while announcing the evacuation on Facebook at 1:40 p.m. on Tuesday.

The hurricane center first warned on Sept. 23, five days before landfall, that all of southern and central Florida were in the potential zone of a hurricane strike from Ian, which at the time was a tropical depression north of Venezuela.

By Sunday Sept. 25, the hurricane center was predicting a strike on Taylor County in northern Florida — more than 300 miles from Fort Myers — although Southwest Florida was still within the broader cone where landfall was possible. As late as Tuesday morning, the agency was projecting that the core of Ian would likely make landfall in the Tampa area, about 120 miles north of Fort Myers. Several media outlets followed suit by positioning news crews in the Tampa area in preparation for the storm, as they had done before Charley.

Still, the federal meteorologists warned people not to “focus on the exact track,” adding that “significant wind, storm surge, and rainfall hazards will extend far from the center.” The agency repeatedly cautioned that Ian’s long-term track was unusually uncertain, with several computer forecasting models showing sharply different paths that Ian might take. They noted that only a slight shift in the storm’s northeast-slicing path could make a big difference in where it landed.

Ahead of the storm, the National Weather Service issued updates warning that “life threatening” storm surges were threatening much of Florida’s Gulf Coast, with areas between Tampa and Fort Myers at the highest risk. On Monday afternoon, the National Weather Service in Tampa issued updates saying those high-risk areas — which included Lee and Charlotte counties where the storm made landfall — could face winds up to 111 mph, destruction of mobile homes, 5- to 10-foot storm surges and severe flooding to low-lying escape routes.

The Lee County Emergency Operations Center tweeted the same National Weather Service update warning of the risks on Monday. But the county only ordered a limited evacuation Tuesday morning. It issued an urgent evacuation order in the middle of the afternoon.

By Wednesday morning, with just hours before the storm was set to make landfall, the governor was warning people to shelter in place, saying “it’s no longer possible to safely evacuate [in some areas]. It’s time to hunker down and prepare for this storm.”

Kevin Guthrie, director Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, said the storm’s path was very difficult to predict and state officials make decisions with the best information they have at the time.

“Lee county did not get real notice that they were going to be the center of this thing until about 36-48 hours,” he said during a briefing on Friday.

DeSantis, at that same briefing, also said local officials had acted appropriately given the data they had.

“I think from southwest Florida’s perspective, as the storm shifted, they made calls and they were helping people get to shelters, they opened up their shelters, they did what they needed to do,” he said.

He added that, as a sign of how unpredictable the storm was, some people in Tampa even tried to escape the storm by traveling south to Fort Myers.

State officials said more than 1,300 search and rescue personnel were working to find survivors on Saturday, including five teams from out of state. On Friday, search and rescue teams had saved about 700 survivors, state officials said. President Joe Biden, describing the effort during a briefing on the hurricane Friday, said six fixed-wing aircraft, 18 boats and 16 helicopters were deployed.

Sanibel Island on the southwest coast was hit especially hard, with storm surges during the storm reaching between 8 and 15 feet. The main 3-mile causeway leading to the island was severely damaged, cutting off access to the community. DeSantis had previously said that barges were transporting heavy equipment to the island to help clear away rubble.

Brigadier Gen. Daniel Hibner, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ South Atlantic Division, said on Saturday that the agency put a survey vessel near the Sanibel area to assess operational and navigation limitations “to have a better understanding of what we’re up against.”

More than 1.1 million homes and businesses remained without power on Saturday, though the number has gone down significantly from the 2.6 million who were without power during the height of the storm.

“We have a long way to go,” Eric Silagy, chair and CEO for Florida Power & Light, said on Saturday. Florida Power & Light is the biggest utility in the state.

Hurricane Ian made a second landfall in South Carolina on Friday near Georgetown, a city about 60 miles north of Charleston. Ian eventually weakened to a post-tropical cyclone as it moved north.

Ten hospitals along Florida’s Gulf Coast were evacuating patients in the aftermath of the storm, some of which were in locally enforced evacuation areas. While many of the 200-plus hospitals in the state are battle-tested for hurricanes, Florida Hospital Association President and CEO Mary Mayhew stressed the difficulty of removing sick patients from facilities.

“It is incredibly disruptive to evacuate patients,” Mayhew said.

Arek Sarkissian and Gloria Gonzalez contributed to this report.

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