(NEW YORK) — With Ian already the deadliest hurricane in decades in Florida — and the death toll continuing to rise — Gov. Ron DeSantis told ABC News on Monday that there would “of course” be a review of the decisions that local officials made before the storm hit.
DeSantis responded brusquely at an afternoon press conference to questions from ABC News about the evacuation orders issued shortly before Ian made landfall in western Florida last Wednesday.
“Excuse me, this has been handled ad nauseam,” the governor said, cutting off the reporter’s question mid-sentence.
Lee County, which has seen the most fatalities, did not mandate evacuations until the day before the Category 4 storm leveled much of its coastline.
In the week since, both emergency officials and DeSantis have been pressed about that timeline and whether different choices could have lessened the casualties.
The governor and others, including the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have stressed that the decision was made at a local level but defended the evacuation timing, citing uncertainty about Ian’s path.
However, the National Hurricane Center forecast on Sept. 25 that Ian could bring a potential storm surge of between 4 and 7 feet along Florida’s southwestern coast from Englewood to Bonita Beach — covering the entirety of Lee County’s coast.
According to Lee’s emergency management plan from 2018, even a 10% chance of a 6-foot storm surge should be enough to prompt the evacuation of Zone A of the county, which includes low-lying coastal high hazard areas, mobile and manufactured homes.
On Sept. 27, less than 24 hours before Ian made landfall, Lee County issued mandatory evacuations for much of the area starting around 5 p.m. local time.
Asked Monday if he would order a formal review of how Lee County responded, DeSantis said: “Well of course you’re going to review everything you do in these storms. That’s the way it works.”
Lee County’s Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach were among the most severely damaged areas in the state. At least 54 of the storm deaths reported in Florida were in Lee County, the sheriff’s office said Saturday.
One resident, Pam Schlitten, rode out the storm in her Cape Coral home. Schlitten, a DeSantis supporter, asked ABC News before the governor’s appearance on Monday why no one knocked on her door and told her to leave.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” said Schlitten, 60.
Her phone service had gone out on Tuesday, she added, which was the day evacuation orders were given.
“There was no police,” she said. “You could have the police running in the area with their speakers. You [have] to get the communication out.”
DeSantis, Lee County defend evacuation timing
The governor has repeatedly said officials on the ground were “following the data” when making evacuation decisions — and it was the data from the forecast models that led them astray.
“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 on Saturday. “As that track started to shift south, and the computer models the next morning, they called for the evacuation, they opened their shelters and they responded very quickly to the data.”
“But at the end of the day, Fort Myers and Naples, on Sunday, I think at the 11 a.m. advisory, 72 hours out, they weren’t even in the cone. That’s just the reality, so they followed it very closely,” he added.
The “cone of uncertainty” is what forecasters use to represent what’s likely to be the center of the storm. At least some parts of Lee County were in the cone in the days leading up to landfall, according to models from the National Hurricane Center.
Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said at a news conference on Monday that search-and-rescue efforts were continuing in Fort Myers Beach, with crews working 24 hours per day.
When asked about the timing of evacuations, Desjarlais insisted the decision was made at the “earliest possible moment when we got the weather information.”
“Based on all the conditions at the time, I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said, noting that — still — many county residents appeared to have chosen not to evacuate as only 4,000 people came to an area shelter that can house 40,000 individuals.
FEMA weighs in
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell discussed the timing of the Lee County evacuations during an appearance on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, echoing DeSantis’ comments about the unpredictability of the storm.
“Just 72 hours before landfall, the Fort Myers and Lee County area were not even in the cone of the hurricane,” Criswell said when asked if the late timing of the evacuation orders played a part in the death toll.
“And as it continued to move south, the local officials immediately — as soon as they knew that they were in that threat zone, made the decisions to evacuate and get people to safety,” she added.
Criswell said officials were aware Hurricane Ian would have a “significant impact to life,” which is why they prepared search and rescue teams to be deployed early in the morning the day after landfall.
“They are still there today going house-by-house to make sure we account for everybody,” Criswell said Sunday.
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