FORT MYERS, Fla. — As Hurricane Ian charged toward the western coast of Florida this week, the warnings from forecasters were growing more urgent. Life-threatening storm surge threatened to deluge the region from Tampa all the way to Fort Myers.
But while officials along much of that coastline responded with orders to evacuate Monday, emergency managers in Lee County held off, pondering during the day whether to tell people to flee, but then deciding to see how the forecast evolved overnight.
The delay, an apparent violation of the meticulous evacuation strategy the county had crafted for just such an emergency, may have contributed to catastrophic consequences that are still coming into focus as the death toll continues to climb.
Dozens have died overall in the state, officials said, as Ian, downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, moved through North Carolina and Virginia on Saturday, at one point leaving nearly 400,000 electricity customers in those states without power.
At least 16 storm-related deaths have been identified in Lee County, the highest toll anywhere in the state, as survivors describe the sudden surge of water — predicted as a possibility by the National Hurricane Service in the days before the storm hit — that sent some of them scrambling for safety in attics and on rooftops.
Lee County, which includes the hard-hit seaside community of Fort Myers Beach, as well as the towns of Fort Myers, Sanibel and Cape Coral, did not issue a mandatory evacuation order for the areas likely to be hardest hit until Tuesday morning, a day after several neighboring counties had ordered their most vulnerable residents to flee.
By then, some residents recalled that they had little time to evacuate. Dana Ferguson, 33, a medical assistant in Fort Myers, said she had been at work when the first text message appeared on her phone Tuesday morning. By the time she arrived home, it was too late to find anywhere to go, so she hunkered down with her husband and three children to wait as a wall of water began surging through areas of Fort Myers, including some that were well away from the coastline.
“I felt there wasn’t enough time,” she said.
Ferguson said she and her family fled to the second floor, lugging a generator and dry food, as the water rose through their living room. The 6-year-old was in tears.
Kevin Ruane, a Lee County commissioner and a former mayor of Sanibel, said the county had postponed ordering an extensive evacuation because the earlier hurricane modeling had shown the storm heading farther north.
“I think we responded as quickly as we humanly could have,” he said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and his state emergency management director also said the earlier forecasts had predicted the brunt of the storm’s fury would strike farther north.
“There is a difference between a storm that’s going to hit north Florida that will have peripheral effects on your region, versus one that’s making a direct impact,” DeSantis said at a news conference Friday in Lee County. “And so what I saw in southwest Florida is, as the data changed, they sprung into action.”
But while the track of Hurricane Ian did shift closer to Lee County in the days before it made landfall, the surge risks the county faced — even with the more northerly track — were becoming apparent as early as Sunday night.
At that point, the National Hurricane Center produced modeling showing a chance of a storm surge covering much of Cape Coral and Fort Myers. Parts of Fort Myers Beach, even in that case, had a 40% chance of a 6-foot-high storm surge, according to the surge forecasts.
Lee County’s emergency planning documents had set out a time-is-of-the-essence strategy, noting that the region’s large population and limited road system make it difficult to evacuate the county swiftly. Over years of work, the county has created a phased approach that expands the scope of evacuations in proportion to the certainty of risk. “Severe events may require decisions with little solid information,” the documents say.
The county’s plan proposes an initial evacuation if there is even a 10% chance that a storm surge will go 6 feet above ground level; based on a sliding scale, the plan also calls for an evacuation if there is a 60% chance of a 3-foot storm surge.
Along with the forecasts Sunday night, updated forecasts Monday warned that many areas of Cape Coral and Fort Myers had between a 10% and a 40% chance of a storm surge above 6 feet, with some areas possibly seeing a surge of more than 9 feet.
Over those Monday hours, neighboring Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties issued evacuation orders, while Sarasota County announced that it expected evacuation orders to be in effect for the following morning. In Lee County, however, officials said they were waiting to make a more up-to-date assessment the following morning.
“Once we have a better grasp on all of that dynamic, we will have a better understanding about what areas we may call for evacuation, and, at the same time, a determination of what shelters will be open,” the Lee County manager, Roger Desjarlais, said Monday afternoon.
But forecasters with the National Hurricane Center were growing more explicit in their warnings for the region. In a 5 p.m. update Monday, they wrote that the highest risk for “life-threatening storm surge” was in the area from Fort Myers to Tampa Bay.
By 7 a.m. Tuesday, Desjarlais announced a partial evacuation order but emphasized that “the areas being evacuated are small” compared with a previous hurricane evacuation.
The county held off on further evacuations, despite a forecast that showed potential surge into areas not covered by the order. Officials expanded their evacuation order later in the morning.
By the middle of the afternoon, Lee County officials were more urgent in their recommendation: “The time to evacuate is now, and the window is closing,” they wrote in a message on Facebook.
Joe Brosseau, 65, said he did not receive any evacuation notice. As the storm surge began pouring in Wednesday morning, he said, he considered evacuating but realized it was too late.
He climbed up a ladder with his 70-year-old wife and dog to reach a crawl space in his garage. He brought tools in case he needed to break through the roof to escape.
“It was terrifying,” Brosseau said. “It was the absolute scariest thing. Trying to get that dog and my wife up a ladder to the crawl space. And then to spend six hours there.”