October 2, 2022 Hurricane Ian updates

A search and rescue team returns to port near the isolated island of Sanibel in the wake of Hurricane Ian on October 1, 2022 in Fort Myers, Florida.
A search and rescue team returns to port near the isolated island of Sanibel in the wake of Hurricane Ian on October 1, 2022 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Officials in hard-hit Lee County, Florida, are facing growing questions about why the first mandatory evacuations were not ordered until a day before Hurricane Ian made landfall, despite a plan to emergency that suggests the evacuations should have happened sooner.

Evacuation orders for Lee County also came a day or more after those for neighboring counties to the north.

The county’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan states that a 10 percent chance of 6 feet or more of water would “indicate the need” for hurricane evacuations in the most vulnerable areas.

The National Hurricane Center’s warnings, reviewed by CNN, first mentioned “4-7 feet of surge” for that area as early as 11 p.m. ET Sunday, three days before landfall. This surge level was predicted for an area from Englewood to Bonita. Beach – which includes the entire Lee County coastline.

At 8 a.m. ET Tuesday, around the time of the first evacuation message, the NHC raised the storm surge forecast to 5-10 feet. And at 11 a.m. ET, the forecast was expanded to 8-12 feet of storm surge for all of Lee County.

The first announcement of the county’s mandatory evacuations wasn’t until Tuesday morning. At a news conference around 7 a.m. Tuesday, county officials announced mandatory evacuations for the most vulnerable “Zone A” and “Zone B” parts of the county.

The county also opened its first shelters at 9 a.m. ET Tuesday. Later that day, the county expanded the order to the entire B Zone.

Other counties in Ian’s path, including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties, spent the day Monday issuing evacuation orders. And even before Hillsborough County issued the formal order, Tampa’s mayor was urging the public to evacuate.

“If you can leave, just leave now and we’ll take care of your personal property,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor told Kate Bolduan on CNN’s At This Hour around 11 a.m. Monday.

GOP Sen. Rick Scott, when pressed by CNN’s Dana Bash, declined to assign blame to Lee County, saying, “We’ll look and find out” whether proper evacuation procedures were followed. “I think once we get through that, we do an evaluation. What I’ve always tried to do as governor is say, OK, what have we learned in each of them.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Lee County officials have defended the county’s decision-making process, pointing to a forecast shift that moved the worst impacts south closer to land.

At a press conference Monday, the day before the evacuation order was issued, Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais dismissed the idea that Hurricane Ian had been more difficult to plan for than other storms He said the fact that his county had been within the predicted track of the storm’s center days earlier suggested the storm would eventually move elsewhere.

“A couple of days ago, Fort Myers, Lee County was right in the middle of the cone of … uncertainty, and that’s really the best place to be, three or four days out because the storm is never going to behave like this way”. Desjarlais said. “So those variables are always there, and we train and plan for every change in storm characteristics.”

Desjarlais said Monday that while the county had not yet issued an evacuation order, residents should feel free to leave.

“If you’re feeling a little nervous about this storm and the effects, it’s okay to go now if you want to,” Desjarlais said. “So if you’re in the mood and think it’s a good idea, now’s a good time to hit the road and head to a safer part of the state.”

The delays were first reported by the New York Times, and Lee County Commissioner Kevin Ruane rejected the Times account in an interview with Boris Sanchez on CNN’s New Day Sunday, calling the report ” inaccurate” and defending the schedule.

“Unfortunately, people got complacent,” Ruane said when discussing why people may not have evacuated sooner. “As far as I’m concerned, the shelters were open, they had the capacity, they had all day Tuesday, they had a good part of Wednesday as the storm came down, they had the capacity to do it.”

And Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson told CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday morning that “Hurricane season advisories start in June. And so there’s some degree of of personal responsibility. I think the county acted correctly. The fact is that a certain percentage of people will not heed the warnings regardless.”

CNN’s Keith Allen and Andy Rose contributed to this report

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