Wednesday, February 1

DeSantis defends timing of Ian evacuations in hard-hit Lee County

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) over the weekend defended the timing of evacuation orders ahead of Hurricane Ian in Lee County, which came under scrutiny after the region saw some of the most significant damage and number of deaths from the storm.

Criticism has grown over Lee County, which includes Fort Myers and Sanibel Island, waiting to issue an evacuation order until Tuesday, about one day before the Category 4 hurricane made landfall on the edge of the county. 

“They were following the data,” DeSantis said at a press conference on Saturday. 

“And you remember, people were looking initially at the Panhandle on Sunday, then Monday came and people were thinking maybe north of Tampa Bay. When we went to bed Monday night people were saying this is a direct hit on Tampa Bay, worst case scenario for the state,” he continued. “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.”

Lee County’s comprehensive emergency management plan indicates officials should issue evacuation orders for areas closest to water when there is a 10 percent or greater chance of a storm surge surpassing six feet.

Hurricane Ian’s projected path did shift south in the days leading up to the storm, but the National Hurricane Center’s forecast as early as Sunday night suggested Lee County could see a peak storm surge of as much as seven feet.

The county did not issue an evacuation order until Tuesday, which came after nearby counties like Hillsborough issued orders the day prior.

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“I said Sunday, even if it goes to North Florida it’s a big storm,” DeSantis said. “You could see impacts in Naples and some of those areas, but that’s a different type of impact than what we ended up seeing. And so I think that they worked very quickly to provide people shelter, provide people the opportunity to do that.”

The Hill has reached out to a Lee County spokeswoman for comment.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell on Sunday also pushed back on the notion that local officials unnecessarily delayed the evacuation decision during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.”

“The storm itself was fairly unpredictable in the days leading up to landfall,” Criswell said. “Just 72 hours before landfall, the Fort Myers and Lee County area were not even in the cone of the hurricane. 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.”

At least 68 people have been confirmed dead as a result of the storm, and the count has continued to climb as search-and-rescue operations progress. DeSantis’s office said on Sunday evening that officials made more than 1,600 rescues.

About 840,000 people reported power outages as of Sunday evening, and officials already restored power to more than 1.8 million since the storm hit.

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