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As Ian's death toll rises, questions swirl on why more Floridians didn't evacuate

Eastbound traffic crowds Interstate 275 as people evacuate before the arrival of Hurricane Ian in Tampa, Fla., on Sept. 27.
Ricardo Arduengo
/
AFP via Getty Images
Eastbound traffic crowds Interstate 275 as people evacuate before the arrival of Hurricane Ian in Tampa, Fla., on Sept. 27.

In Florida, at least 119 people died in Hurricane Ian. Most of those deaths came from drowning in a storm surge as high as 18 feet in some areas.

The largest number of fatalities was in Lee County, home to three islands that saw the greatest impact from the storm. But it was also a county that delayed ordering residents to evacuate for more than a day, despite warnings from meteorologists that it would see "life-threatening" flooding.

Medical examiners are still certifying storm-related deaths. But it's already clear Ian is the deadliest storm to hit Florida since the 1935 Labor Day hurricane. Brian Wolshon, a civil engineering professor at Louisiana State University who studies evacuations says, "Obviously, if there's a death, there's a failure someplace. But it's hard to assign where that failure is in the system."

In a hurricane, local emergency managers in Florida are the officials who order evacuations. They rely on information from meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center, who hold calls with local officials to explain forecasts, advisories and key messages for the public.

Wolshon says in a disaster with so many deaths, a post-storm analysis will examine why so many people failed to evacuate. "We're going to look at that and say, 'Where in that chain could it have been communicated earlier, or better, or more effective?'"

Many are looking at a decision by officials in Lee County to delay ordering a mandatory evacuation until Tuesday, September 27, the day before the hurricane made landfall. That was more than a day after the National Hurricane Center warned a "life-threatening" storm surge up to 7 feet could hit the county. At a press conference, County manager Roger Desjarlais said, "We did consider calling for an evacuation yesterday. But given the uncertainty of the path, the timing just wasn't right."

Desjarlais says one of the things that convinced local officials to order people to leave was that the track of the storm projected by the National Hurricane Center had shifted south and east. It was just a day before the storm ultimately made landfall in their county.

On Sanibel, Fort Myers Beach and other areas, many people stayed. After the storm, reporters asked officials if they waited too late to order the evacuation. They stood by their decision, citing the late change in the hurricane's forecast track.

Florida's Governor Ron DeSantis backed them up, saying, "As that track started to shift south in the computer models the next morning, they called for the evacuation, they opened their shelters and they responded very quickly to the data." DeSantis also lashed out at the media for continuing to, in his words to–"cast aspersions" by asking questions about the timing of the evacuation.

The National Hurricane Center routinely warns officials and the public not to focus solely on the storm's track and cone because the graphic doesn't show the areas that will be impacted or the size of the storm. And Ian was huge, almost 500 miles wide.

Destroyed homes on Matlacha Island, Fla. on Monday after Hurricane Ian ravaged the area.
/ Carlos Osorio for NPR
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Carlos Osorio for NPR
Destroyed homes on Matlacha Island, Fla. on Monday after Hurricane Ian ravaged the area.

James Franklin, the longtime chief of forecasting at the National Hurricane Center says, "I found it frustrating to hear all the back and forth whether Lee County was in the cone or out of the cone when that really shouldn't have been the focus and it shouldn't have been a part of anybody's decision-making."

Another key fact is that National Hurricane Center advisories and graphics showed that the northern part of Lee County was always in the cone. On Tuesday morning, the day before lan hit, the eye of the storm's landfall was moved south from Tampa to Sarasota County. It was a relatively small track adjustment, but made a big difference because the hurricane was approaching the Florida coast at such a sharp angle. Franklin says, "So, you could have a relatively small track error left or right and that would translate into a big change down the coast."

Ian also gained strength as it approached the coast, increasing its impacts. NHC forecasters had warned of this rapid intensification. It's been seen in other recent hurricanes, a consequence researchers believe of warming oceans and climate change.

There are many practical reasons people fail to evacuate before a major storm. It may be about caring for pets, elderly parents, or past experience from earlier hurricanes. But it all comes down to one thing—whether they see it as a real threat. LSU's Brian Wolshon says, "The perception could be in how it's communicated to them, or what information is provided to them, or what their life experience is. If they don't feel a direct life-and-death threat, they're going to be less likely to leave."

The National Hurricane Center will conduct a post-storm analysis of its forecasting and messaging for Hurricane Ian, including an examination of why so many died. Governor DeSantis has suggested state and local officials will be conducting their own review.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.