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Hurricane Ian: Difficult Lessons Learned Over Past 6 Months

Ian's wrath spread around the state like an earthquake, with many survivors referring to severely damaged areas as "a war zone."

As the storm surge receded and the winds calmed in the wake of Hurricane Ian, the data trickling in over the ensuing months revealed two devastating impacts about Florida’s deadliest hurricane in over 80 years.

First, people 60 years of age and older made up nearly three-quarters of the fatalities in the state, and second, a quarter of the state’s fatalities listed a preliminary medical condition as a probable or contributing cause of death.

Scenes and stories of Ian’s wrath rippled like aftershocks across the state, with many survivors describing hard-struck areas like Fort Myers Beach as “a war zone.” Others compared the devastation to the aftermath of a bomb explosion.

The death toll steadily climbed as the weeks turned into months, but by early October 2022, it was already evident that Hurricane Ian was the deadliest hurricane in the state’s history since the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, which killed over 400 people. Ian, in comparison, had claimed the lives of at least 149 people in Florida, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission Report.

Of the 149 fatalities, 72 had occurred in Lee County, where Hurricane Ian had made landfall on Sept. 28. In comparison, the surrounding counties of Collier and Sarasota had each recorded 10 deaths, and Charlotte County had recorded nine. The number of fatalities in other counties remained below 10.

Lee County officials were quickly criticized for issuing a mandatory evacuation for the barrier islands a little over 24 hours before landfall and a day after surrounding counties had already issued the order for their oceanside areas.

Evacuating the entire county would take up to 41 hours, according to Lee County Emergency Management estimates from 2015, and that timeframe increases to 89 hours when attempting to leave southwestern Florida. In 2020, an evacuation study by the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council showed it would take 36 hours to evacuate all of Zone A — the zone first in line for storm surge evacuations that includes coastal areas and barrier islands.

When asked what would be the ideal amount of time to ensure everyone had the ability and accessibility to evacuate, Regional Director of Programs and Operations for the Fort Myers Center for Independent Living Travis Taylor told AccuWeather that 72 hours “would be ideal – 48 hours at least.”

“A lot of individuals with disabilities that we serve, or elderly individuals, they didn’t have a lot of time to prepare because you think about the fact that they may not have vehicles, they may need more of like accessible transportation,” Taylor said. “There wasn’t a lot of that available. So many of the consumers that did stay that we serve maybe didn’t even really have that choice or financial means prepared to leave.”

During the evening hours of Saturday, Sept. 24, Ian was no more than a tropical storm churning in the Caribbean. AccuWeather forecast maps showed the storm heading for Florida with the cone of error engulfing all of Florida save for the westernmost end of the panhandle.

Three days before landfall, AccuWeather’s forecast shifted east and continued to shift until landfall. By Sept. 25, AccuWeather was calling for a storm surge of 3-6 feet along Fort Myers.

Most forecasts at this point were indicating the storm would make landfall near Tampa Bay, Florida. However, a weather pattern in the eastern United States kept meteorologists on their toes, warning the track could still shift.

“Each hurricane is going to present problems with respect to exact track and impacts 72 hours out,” AccuWeather Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski said. “Some hurricanes are very predictable, and during the past 20 years, most hurricanes directly impacting the U.S. have been predicted fairly well three days out. However, that was not the case with Ian.”

In the Midwest to Northeast, an upper-air pattern supported a front tracking through the eastern U.S.

“The model output had that upper-level wind flow pattern more west to east farther north, suggesting it would have less impact on Ian’s northward movement,” Kottlowski said. “This gave local and federal government officials a false sense as to where Ian would make landfall initially [three to seven days out] due to the increased accuracy shown in previous landfalls.”

An AccuWeather graphic from Sept. 26, 2022. Models at the time projected that the upper-level wind flow pattern would have less impact on Ian’s northward movement. However, it would ultimately play a role in steering Hurricane Ian toward southwestern Florida rather than the Big Bend or Tampa Bay.

According to Taylor, folks were evacuating early, but they were evacuating from the Tampa Bay area.

“It was really projected to go up north right to the Tampa Bay area, so a lot of those individuals had come further down to get away from the storm, and there was a lot of traffic and things here,” Taylor said. “So by the time that the hurricane switched paths and was coming toward us, a lot of people were here, and we didn’t have much time to prepare and get out.”

By 48 hours until landfall, the non-tropical weather system in the eastern U.S. was extending farther south, curving the forecast track of Hurricane Ian away from the Big Bend and more toward the peninsula.

“It became more obvious that Ian was going to track farther to the northeast [due to more influence from that upper-level feature supporting the cold front] with a big focus on the highly populated area in and around the Tampa area,” Kottlowski said.

But even with forecasts pointing toward the Tampa Bay area, meteorologists began warning of towering storm surge in the Fort Myers region. The National Weather Service warned of dangerous storm surge along a majority of the coastline.

“Looking back at what information we had and given the trend in the shifting track forecasts, mandatory evacuations could have been issued 48 hours in advance of landfall, which is fairly close to what most local officials try to do,” Kottlowski said. “But, people living on the barrier islands need more time to evacuate due to logistics of using more ferries and traffic issues on two-lane highways leading out to some of these barrier islands. So, mandatory evacuations for barrier islands need to happen more than 48 hours out.”

Charlotte, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee – all counties north of Lee – issued mandatory evacuations. But while Lee faced a similar, if not higher, storm surge forecast, officials decided to wait.

Eastbound traffic crowds Interstate 4 as people evacuate in preparation for Hurricane Ian approaching the western side of the state, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Lake Alfred. PHELAN M. EBANHACK/AP PHOTO

“A couple of days ago, Fort Myers, Lee County, was right in the very center of the cone of uncertainty,” Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said in a 3 p.m. news conference on Sept. 26. “And that’s really the best place to be three, four days out because the storm will never, ever behave that way.”

But Ian did.

And in the days following landfall, The Washington Post pointed out that the delay in the evacuation was at odds with Lee County’s emergency management plan. While the plan is nonbinding, it suggested that barrier islands and other high-risk areas should be evacuated when a low risk of at least a 6-foot storm surge was present.

During the morning of Sept. 26, a little more than 48 hours before landfall, AccuWeather began predicting a potentially “catastrophic” storm surge of 6-10 feet along the Fort Myers area.

The county plan suggested an evacuation of Zone B even with low confidence of a 10-foot storm surge.

“Evacuation orders are typically issued based on storm surge projections. So as the forecasting for a system shifts, storm surge projections invariably shift with it. The day before Ian’s anticipated landfall, storm surge predictions drastically increased,” Lee County spokeswoman Betsy Clayton had told The Washington Post in an emailed statement. “Based on this modeling, we issued the corresponding evacuation orders and encouraged residents to seek shelter.”

When AccuWeather reached out to Lee County for comment on storm surge forecasts and the timing of the mandatory evacuation orders, Desjarlais said in a statement that evacuation decisions were “made collaboratively based on the totality of known circumstances and factors at that time.”

“Storm surge is just one factor that we need to look at when making the decision to evacuate and the timing of calling for an evacuation,” Desjarlais said in the emailed statement. “Other key factors to consider include the readiness of public safety officials to facilitate an orderly evacuation; perceptions and prior experiences of residents; and the readiness of shelters and our community partners to provide needed services to those who are evacuated.”

AccuWeather warned of a storm surge ranging from 6-10 feet in the Fort Myers Beach area as early as the morning of Monday, Sept. 26. Ian made landfall in Florida on Wednesday, Sept. 28. ACCUWEATHER

When asked to describe the state of the other key factors ahead of the hurricane and what changes or additional preparations needed to be made, Clayton, the county spokesperson, didn’t comment on the topic.

“It’s completely bewildering to me and completely unclear why officials delayed that evacuation,” AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jonathan Porter said. “It seems it was completely against the established plan that they have, and it was also inconsistent with what neighboring counties like Charlotte County were doing.”

An investigation by WINK News in December found that not only did 80% of the victims accounted for at the time live in evacuation Zone A, but the county’s Public Safety Director Sandra Tapfumaneyi had sent a draft of an evacuation order at 7:03 p.m. Monday — 12 hours before one was issued publicly.

“Initially, we believed the storm surge was going to have more of an effect on the uninhabited areas of the Zone A,” Desjarlais told WINK reporter Peter Fleischer. “That’s why we were a little slower to pull that trigger than we might have otherwise.”

At 7 a.m. on Sept. 27, roughly 33 hours before landfall, Lee County announced mandatory evacuations for Zone A and low-lying areas of Zone B. This area includes the barrier islands and surrounding low-lying areas. Roughly an hour and a half later, all of Zone B was placed under a mandatory evacuation order.

Employees at the Fort Myers Beach branch of the Center for Independent Living had their hands full between calling hotels for folks to evacuate to and paying for individuals to take taxis once the mandatory evacuation order had been issued. Transportation was a major barrier for clients of the center, Travis said, as many may not have their own vehicles.

“It was barely 24 hours that we had to really create a plan and where to go,” Taylor said. “There weren’t a lot of hotels that you could get, and then going across the main road over to the other side, it was very congested, and you didn’t want to get stuck in the middle of a hurricane with no shelter.

AccuWeather warned of a “life-threatening” storm surge from the Fort Myers area northward through the Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay areas between Wednesday and Thursday.

Meanwhile, the storm’s impact in the eastern U.S. became more pronounced.

“By 24 hours, it was clear that Ian’s track was shifting farther east and south [again due to that upper-level feature exerting a more northwesterly nudge on the upper-level steering flow over Ian] more toward the Fort Myers/Cape Coral area,” Kottlowski said.

An AccuWeather graphic from Sept. 27, 2022, shows a high-pressure system steering the hurricane more toward the Fort Myers Beach area rather than Tampa Bay. ACCUWEATHER

But while the exact track of the storm had shifted compared to 72 hours out, the predicted impacts had held firm.

“Statements by the National Hurricane Center suggested the possibility of life-threatening storm surge for the entire west coast of Florida 72 hours out,” Kottlowski said. “So, why local officials in the Cape Coral, Fort Myers and even Naples area did not issue evacuation orders 72 hours out just to be on the safe side for the barrier islands is problematic. There is a tendency for local and governmental officials to evacuate fewer people due to the costs and inconvenience.”

In the emailed statement, Desjarlais highlighted Hurricane Irma as an example of a storm where the county had issued mandatory evacuations, only for the hurricane to make landfall in Collier County — the county directly south of Lee.

An estimated 6.8 million people across Florida had evacuated from their homes for Hurricane Irma. Lee County had issued mandatory evacuation orders for its barrier islands and other low-lying areas by Sept. 7, 2017, a full three days before landfall, as track maps at the time showed the storm heading more toward southeastern Florida.

From start to finish, it took about 14 hours for the winds to die down around Taylor’s house. Then, it wasn’t until the day after landfall that he was able to remove enough debris from his driveway to get to the center and start helping clients.

The Center for Independent Living worked with partners to deliver meals and gas as well as gathered a list of essential items and actions people were most in need of, including debris removal, electricity, water and ramps.

Transitioning out of shelters remained a problem after Hurricane Ian, Taylor noted, as well as affordable, accessible housing after the storm smashed through homes across the area.

“When I moved here, I had to purchase a house and do all the modifications myself,” said Taylor, who uses a wheelchair. “I couldn’t find a place that was accessible, and I could afford a lot of places because I was making a decent wage. So if an individual is on SSI, social security income or limited wages, they’re going to be limited even more and have almost zero to no housing.”

During the immediate days of Ian’s aftermath, however, restoring the mobility of those who had lost wheelchairs, walkers and other mobility devices was of high priority. People who relied on electric scooters needed creative solutions to charge the batteries given the power outages, and the storm surge had damaged or destroyed wheelchairs, walkers and ramps.

The loss of electricity and the amount of debris in the roadways contributed to at least 20 deaths, nine of which were in Lee County. The deaths in Lee County consisted of people who were oxygen-dependent and lost electricity or had an asthma attack following the loss of power, along with records of delayed medical attention due to the hurricane. The latter included incidents of pre-existing health conditions contributing to the probable cause as well as people injured during the storm who later passed.

Water was the other hazard Floridians faced.

“Surge seems to be a difficult aspect of the storm to visualize in a person’s mind when compared to heavy rainfall or wind because on balance, few people have seen for themselves how quickly storm surge flooding can result in rapidly rising water which inundates anything and everything in its path – often times moving well away from the immediate coast through bays, inlets and tidal rivers,” Porter said back in October following an NWS analysis of water damage following the storm.

Two weeks after Ian’s landfall, the National Weather Service sent survey teams to Fort Myers to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the damage caused by Ian, specifically measuring the storm surge.

The team found the highest surge values at or around Fort Myers Beach, finding water marks as high as 15 feet .

“The hardest-hit area obviously is [the] Fort Myers Beach area; that’s where we found our highest surge values,” Jeff Evans, an employee of the NWS office in Houston who helped conduct the damage surveys, told AccuWeather National Reporter Bill Wadell in October. “We saw damage up in the second floor.”

At least 62 fatalities listed drowning or possible drowning as a probable cause of death, 36 of which occurred in Lee County.

“It’s pretty clear that the delay of government officials in enacting a mandatory evacuation in Lee County resulted in loss of lives,” Porter said.

Produced in association with AccuWeather

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