LEE COUNTY, Fla. — Days after Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida’s Gulf Coast, decimating parts of Fort Myers and barrier islands, including internationally renowned Sanibel and Captiva Islands, the sheer vastness of Ian’s wrath on the state is still being revealed.
Stunning images of loss and heartbreaking stories of survival continue to emerge as Florida’s Governor summarized the impacts of the storm in some parts of the state as “a 500-year flood event."
But with all of Ian’s scars on the state, there are questions as to why leaders in Lee County, where the hurricane hit hardest, waited on ordering residents there to evacuate.
“Even though evacuations have not yet been called, and we won’t know about that until tomorrow morning, particularly on the barrier islands, if you’re feeling unsafe, if you’re feeling nervous about this storm and the effects, it’s ok to go now,” Lee County's manager Roger Desjarlais said during a press conference only two days before the hurricane made landfall near Fort Myers as a near Category 5 storm.
On Tuesday, just one day before Ian hit, Lee County ordered mandatory evacuations for residents in its flood-prone areas. All evacuation orders are made at the county level in Florida, and while leaders can order evacuations, they can’t mandate that people leave.
But even when Lee County officials called for residents to evacuate, it came a day after neighboring counties started evacuating communities. Models from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) had already warned of the potential for life-threatening storm surge with the highest risk from Fort Myers to Tampa Bay.
Over the weekend, Lee County leaders, including Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno, stood by his county’s decisions.
“Everybody wants to focus on a plan that might have been done differently," Sheriff Marceno said. "Well, let me tell you something, I stand 100% with my County Commissioners and with my County Manager. We did exactly what we had to do, and I wouldn’t have changed anything."
Governor DeSantis also offered support to the county leaders when asked whether local leaders ordered evacuations too late.
“These local governments have their procedures in place, and they do that based on what the data in front of them is,” DeSantis said.
But according to the County’s own Emergency Response Plan, decisions on evacuations are on a sliding scale and can be initiated even if there’s a 10% chance storm surge could reach 6 feet.
Days before Ian made landfall, the state’s public safety director lamented about the storm’s challenging path.
“In my 33 years of public safety, this may be the most difficult storm as far as track guidance is going,” Director Kevin Guthrie said.
Days after the storm made landfall, leaving historic destruction in its path, Guthrie also offered his support to local decision-makers.
“Emergency Management Directors do not have a crystal ball. Directors have a ton of scientific data. They made the best decision on the info they have at the time,” he said.