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Did Lee County’s 'Just-in-Time' evacuation protocol for Hurricane Ian cost lives?

A mobile home damaged with debris in the foreground
Patricia Borns
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A mobile home park on San Carlos Island, part of Fort Myers Beach, is virtually destroyed after Hurricane Ian on Sep 28/ The island’s mobile home parks have long provided affordable housing to service workers who commute to work on Fort Myers Beach and other wealthier communities where they can’t afford to live.

In 2010 the Southwest Florida county changed from a ‘Just in Case’ to a ‘Just in Time’ protocol for emergency management to avoid “over-evacuation.” The protocol was followed — with potentially deadly consequences. 

As Hurricane Ian barreled over Western Cuba toward the Gulf of Mexico, counties on the Southwest coast of Florida had their emergency management plans at the ready — plans that every Florida county must prepare and regularly update.

But a close look at Lee County’s plan reveals that its evacuation orders, issued just one day before the Category 4 storm made landfall, emphasized efficiency and cost rather than caution.

To avoid what it called “over-evacuation,” Lee County in 2010 switched from a Just-in-Case protocol — which always assumes a hurricane one category higher than forecasted — to a Just-in-Time method, an only- as-needed approach based on wind and surge forecasts.

The switch in philosophy occurred when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started to model storm surge separately from wind in its hurricane forecasts. The worst-case model turned Southwest Florida’s inundation map into a hot red mess. Just-in-Case evacuations were going to involve more people and money.

 Map of Southwest Florida’s hurricane evacuation zones
FloridaDisaster.org
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Map of Southwest Florida’s hurricane evacuation zones.

“Evacuations are costly. Nobody can afford to look at the worst case every time,” said Daniel Noah, a meteorologist and warning coordinator in the National Weather Service’s Tampa Bay office.

As an example of over-evacuation, Noah points to Hurricane Irma in 2017. He estimates that of six million people who evacuated for Irma, 20 percent didn’t need to.

“It’s what 20 percent of people do. Here you have a whole bunch of people using resources that didn’t need to go,” said Noah. “The ‘Just-in-Time’ response was a response to past over-evacuation.”

But in the case of Ian, the Just-in-Time (JIT) protocol may have contributed to a belated evacuation order that has been intensely scrutinized by numerous media outlets, including the New York Times, which reported that a delay in issuing the order “may have led to catastrophic consequences” in the county which has suffered 57 Ian-related deaths to date.

Even using the Just-in-Time approach, the most vulnerable people in coastal areas should have been evacuated 48 hours ahead of landfall, according to the Lee plan.

The county blames the late evacuation order on an unforeseen shift in storm surge projections.

“The day before Ian’s anticipated landfall, storm surge predictions drastically increased – forecasting historic surge levels impacting evacuation zones,” Lee County Communications Director Betsy Clayton said in a written statement to FLCGA News.

Coined by Toyota Corporation, Just-in-Time (JIT) is a lean manufacturing term whereby each process produces only what’s needed for the next process in a continuous flow. From an initial review of other coastal Florida emergency management plans, its use in hurricane evacuation parlance appears unique to Lee County.

When it works, JIT increases efficiency and reduces cost. But exceptional events can bring the process to its knees, as happened to Toyota when it was hit with a supply chain disaster during the COVID pandemic.

And to Lee County when it was hit by Hurricane Ian.

“Run from the surge, hide from the wind”

A former hazard mitigation coordinator for the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, Daniel Trescott started preparing for Ian five days out when its cone was projected to slice through half of Lee County.

With homes in Fort Myers and on Cayo Costa where the storm made landfall, Trescott, who did his first Sea, Lake and Overland Surge (SLOSH) map with a calculator in the 1980s, evacuated to higher ground.

“We used to have two sayings about hurricanes: ‘Run from the surge, hide from the wind,’ or ‘If you’re not gonna drown, hunker down.’” he said. “The point is, the reason people are evacuated in zones is tied to storm surge. With a Just-In-Time evacuation, the Zone A’s go first. Then you wait further for the forecast to call Zone B.”

Sept. 25: Ian to become major hurricane

The National Hurricane Center forecasted Tropical Storm Ian would become a major hurricane.

Addressing Floridians from the state’s emergency operations center, Governor Ron Desantis declared a statewide State of Emergency, while

Director of Emergency Management Kevin Guthrie warned a Category 4 storm surge could be possible even with a Category 1 or 2 landfall.

But Guthrie also told residents to stay in place for the time being, reminding them that “more than 2 million people than was necessary evacuated ahead of Hurricane Irma in 2017.”

Lee County reported it is “closely monitoring Tropical Storm Ian. … The Emergency Operations Center is partially activated for planning purposes.”

Sept. 26: two days before landfall

Two days before Hurricane Irma struck in 2017, Lee County issued evacuation orders for its barrier islands and Zone A.

Now, an 11 a.m. report came from the National Hurricane Center: "Life-threatening storm surge is possible along much of the Florida west coast, with the highest risk from Fort Myers to the Tampa Bay region."

The county issued a press release declaring a local state of emergency. “Staff are evaluating storm surge models and flood models at this time,” it said. FLCGA News requested public records of the models but did not receive them by publication time.

The City of Sanibel warned residents of Ian as early as Sept. 23 when it was still called Tropical Depression 9. “The most current information from the National Hurricane Center indicates the system will approach Southwest Florida as a major hurricane,” city officials posted on Facebook.

Sanibel began issuing hurricane reentry passes on Sept. 24, anticipating an evacuation.

On Sept. 26, when no evacuation order was forthcoming from the county, Sanibel leaders declared a local state of emergency and a voluntary evacuation order.

“While I want to be optimistic the storm will track well to the west of Sanibel, residents who lived on the island during Hurricane Charley know all too well how quickly a hurricane can change course, defying all the predictions and forecasts,” Sanibel City manager Dana Souza posted on Facebook.

Coordinating meteorologist Noah was in close touch with the Lee County emergency management team.

“I hit them pretty hard on Monday and really hard on Tuesday morning,” Noah said. “They knew they were in a storm surge warning. It went from the Keys all the way up to Appalach. Any time a storm parallels our coast, you still have to warn the larger area because you don’t know where it’s going to happen.”

From inside Lee County’s emergency management operations center, Commissioner Kevin Ruane, a former mayor of Sanibel, posted a snapshot of a slide presentation:

“The approach of Hurricane Ian is part of the worst case scenario,” read the slide, adding, “Lean to pessimistic side in decision making.”

The commissioner did not respond to questions from FLCGA News about the slide’s meaning or any concerns he may have had about the evacuation order at that time.

Sept. 27: the day before

Moving people can take up to 41 hours to vacate inside Lee and up to 89 hours to evacuate out of the Southwest Florida region due to traffic congestion, the county advises on its emergency management web page.

At 7:00 a.m., just 27 hours from landfall, the county issued evacuation orders for Zone A and parts of Zone B encompassing the barrier islands and low-lying areas as well as mobile home residents.

"We did consider calling for evacuation yesterday,” Desjarlais told reporters during the press briefing, “but given the uncertainty of the path, the timing just wasn't right.

“And the areas being evacuated are small, compared to the evacuation during Irma,” he added. “This storm is much smaller. We don't expect nearly the same kinds of wind velocities we saw during Irma. So calling for evacuation today is a perfectly reasonable decision.”

The predictions were short-lived. Hurricane Irma landed at Marco Island as a Category-3 storm with 115 mph winds gusting to 142 mph. Hurricane Ian hit Cayo Costa with sustained 150 mph winds.

Orders to evacuate the rest of Zone B and parts of Zone C quickly followed, extending from the barrier islands out to North Cape Coral and all of North Fort Myers west of I-75. More shelters were opened, from 10 to 14.

At 6:30 p.m., less than 10 hours after the first evacuation order, a text alert advised, “For your safety, please seek shelter or shelter in place by 8 p.m. tonight.”

A study by the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council shows it would take 36 hours to evacuate a Zone A population of 375,078 people in Lee County. This was in 2020, before two years of double-digit population growth, and didn’t include other vulnerable zones.

Sept. 28, Ian strikes

On the morning of landfall, the county advised residents, “If you need to get to a shelter, proceed with caution as conditions worsened overnight.”

At 10:41 a.m., another alert followed: “It is time to shelter in place. It is no longer safe outside, on the bridges or roads.”

The intent, Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais told local media, was to safeguard people from moving about in dangerous weather. By that time, 14 open shelters with a 40,000-person capacity had only 4,000 people.

For Hurricane Irma, some 300,000 people were ordered to evacuate according to a commentary by Desjarlais, and about 35,000 people took refuge in county shelters. There were no deaths. Lee County subsequently received the 2018 National Hurricane Conference Outstanding Achievement Award for its handling of the storm.

If the goal was to prevent over-evacuation during Hurricane Ian, the Just In Time protocol appeared to work.

Desjarlais did not respond to a request from FLCGA News for comment about the late timing of the evacuation orders and possible reason for the low shelter count.

At around 3:05 p.m., Ian came ashore near Cayo Costa with sustained 150 mph winds. As the flooding began, untold numbers of people with no second story risked their lives scrambling to high ground.

Text messages shared by Heritage Oaks resident Kerry Brittain in Fort Myers show neighbors scrambling throughout the day:

“”You both need to get out. Head to family in Lehigh now.”

“Entire community is flooded.”

“We need a boat. We are knee-deep in water in our house.”

At 4:30 p.m., another text alert warned,“If water is coming into your home, get to the highest spot possible.”

“We call it vertical evacuation,” Trescott said. “It’s what a lot of people did. “They went to a higher story and hunkered down. But it’s dangerous, and it’s a huge manpower resource after the fact to get them out.”

Wood strewn about from a dock from Hurrican Ian
Patricia Borns
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The remnants of a dock — one of many — lie strewn around a riverfront home in Fort Myers while a sign warns looters away after.

The policy of least regret

Each Florida county is bound by state law to provide emergency management planning to protect human life.

Of over 100 hurricane-related deaths confirmed in Florida by the Medical Examiners Commission, over 50 were caused by drowning, and 54 of those were recorded in Lee County. The next-highest number reported by a county outside Lee was 7.

Wayne Daltry, a former colleague of Trescott’s at Southwest Florida’s Regional Planning Council and its former director, described how evacuations would have been called for Ian had the “Just In Case” protocol been followed:

“The islands would have been told to go three days out even though the cone was uncertain, the river and bay fronts two days out, and the interior areas the last day,” Daltry said on Facebook Messenger. “Mobile homes should have gotten the word at the same time as the riverfront if not before, based on the wind forecasts.”

While Trescott believes the county’s evacuation window was sufficient, Daltry said it failed by ‘Just In Case’ standards.

“Doing it this way is the policy of least regret,” he said.

Noah, who recently toured the wreckage of Fort Myers Beach, said the destruction in Lee County should serve as a cautionary tale for emergency managers across the state going forward: “I would like to take all Florida coastal commissioners on a tour of the town and say, ‘This is what can happen to your area.’”

This article was produced by the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a non-profit organization that funds local investigative journalism across the state.