Well before Hurricane Ian’s seething torrent of saltwater began killing people in coastal Lee County, a complicated equation developed by the state was already underway.
Mostly mathematical, it ticks through evacuation machinations that consider storm-surge height, traffic, whether it’s tourist season, and the timing of damaging winds to create a timeline on how best to get people to safety ahead of a storm.
But there’s also human nature and Mother Nature, both unpredictable variables in the calculation.
A week after Category 4 Hurricane Ian made landfall in Lee County, known for the shell-rich sands of Sanibel Island and kitschy Fort Myers Beach, 50 people in the county are dead from the storm, representing more than half of all Ian-related deaths in Florida.
The tragic outcome has people questioning both the forecast track of Ian and whether Lee County gave residents enough time to flee Ian’s damaging storm surge, which was forecast to reach 4 to 7 feet when the evacuation was given, but jumped to 5 to 10 an hour later. Three hours later, it was 8 to 12 feet, and by Wednesday morn, up to 18 feet.
The USA Today Network-Florida created a detailed timeline and interviewed multiple weather experts, emergency managers, state and local officials, and people on the ground, to better understand what happened.
The result shows that a confluence of three major factors played a large part in the severity of the disaster.
- An underestimation of deadly storm surge in Lee County, both in early forecasts and by residents likely unaware of the extreme damage that can be wrought by water.
- A challenging forecast that at one point painted the bull’s-eye on Tampa and Clearwater, a worst-case scenario for the area of more than 3 million people. The National Hurricane Center warned multiple times that there was low confidence in the track of the storm, although the rapid intensification was accurately predicted from the beginning.
- And finally, people, whose past experiences, or a lack of experience with hurricanes, may have influenced their actions.
Added together, the results were grievous.
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“How were thousands of people blindsided by this? If you haven’t seen it before, it’s hard to picture something completely outside your reference,” said Hal Needham, an extreme weather and disaster scientist with the GeoTrek project, who studies storm surge. “When people picture flooding, they are picturing water rising vertically like from flooding rainfall. Storm surge is a raging river.”
A 2014 study by the National Hurricane Center found that 88% of all deaths in hurricanes that made landfall in the United States from 1963 to 2012 were caused by storm surge, inland flooding and high surf.
By comparison, deaths from wind, including tornadoes spawned by the tropical cyclones, accounted for just 11% of the fatalities. Just 15 people died as a direct result of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which came ashore with wind speeds of 165 mph but with not as much storm surge.
Storm surge from Ian won’t break Hurricane Katrina’s record of 28 feet, and is unlikely to top Hurricane Michael’s 14 feet, Needham said. He is estimating the surge reached depths of about 11 feet on parts of the barrier islands.
“There is a learning curve with hurricanes and the catastrophic thing for some people is there is only the one chance,” Needham said.
Patti Benson stayed through the storm — not far from her San Carlos Island home between mainland Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach. She can’t swim, and watched the water level rise with trepidation.
“It scared the living hell out of us,” she told The News-Press in Fort Myers. “You know none of us was expecting this, and now we just got to get through it. We got to survive.”
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The timeline: were residents given enough time to safely evacuate?
In Sanibel, a fish hook-shaped island of low-key nature preserves and refined homes, the City Council unanimously declared a voluntary evacuation at an emergency session on the evening of Monday, Sept. 26.
That was about 13 hours before Lee County issued its first mandatory evacuation order.
“We were concerned about the wobbly spaghetti models,” Sanibel City Manager Dana Souza told the USA Today Network-Florida. “We know that people don’t want to leave. If it’s going to be a tropical storm and it’s going to be off-coast, the majority will stay, But we didn’t know where it was going, so we wanted to be proactive.”
It would prove prescient.
Hurricane alerts shrieked from Lee County cellphones early Tuesday, Sept. 27, after a 5 a.m. hurricane warning was extended from Sarasota County south to Bonita Beach, which is in Lee County just north of the Collier County line.
At that point, people had about 20 hours before sustained tropical-storm-force winds of between 39 mph and 74 mph would begin. Emergency management officials warn against being on the road with winds higher than 40 mph.
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When the National Weather Service issues a hurricane “warning,” it means you can expect tropical storm-force winds within 36 hours. They use this window with the idea that preparations and evacuations be completed before the destructive winds start.
Lee County ordered mandatory evacuations for vulnerable coastal areas at 7 a.m. Tuesday. Evacuations in Florida are based on storm surge heights, not wind speeds.
Shelters — all pet-friendly — opened at 9 a.m.
The storm surge prediction early that morning was for 4 to 7 feet in most of Lee County, where it had been since the first depth prediction was given late Sunday night.
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But by 8 a.m., it had jumped to 5 to 10 feet. Three hours later, it lurched to 8 to 12 feet, and by 9 a.m. Wednesday, about six hours before Ian’s landfall, it had soared to up to 18 feet.
Pleas from acting National Hurricane Center Director Jamie Rhome for people in Southwest Florida to prepare got increasingly more urgent throughout the day Tuesday.
“The thing that is most pressing to me, is we are really starting to lose time for people in the path of this system to take action,” Rhome said in an 11 a.m. Tuesday briefing on YouTube. “If evacuations are ordered, you need to heed them. There is not a lot of time to second-guess. You need to move out quickly.”
Rhome spearheaded the program that developed storm surge maps that carefully calculate the angle of storms and the bathymetry (measurement of water depth) of the coastline to better warn of what is possible.
Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais, who had boasted Monday that the county was better prepared for Ian than 2017’s Hurricane Irma and that flood control systems had since been improved, said Tuesday at the 7 am. evacuation announcement that barrier islands could be overwashed and people who decide to stay on them “do so at their own peril.”
Desjarlais said the county had considered beginning evacuations Monday but that the storm’s path was still uncertain.
Evacuations for the most vulnerable areas in Lee County are expected to take about 10 hours, according to its plan that looks at “clearance times” by zone. Assuming people don’t want to drive at night, that would have given them about 14 hours from the 5 a.m. Tuesday hurricane warning to sunset at 7:18 p.m. that day to leave.
Add the second most vulnerable area, and the evacuation grows to up to 14 hours.
“I will say, evacuation is about getting out of storm-surge areas, it’s not about driving to Georgia,” said John Renne, who researches evacuations as director of the Center for Urban and Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. “It shouldn’t take more than 24 hours to get out of a storm surge zone, it should take 15 to 20 minutes.”
Betsy Clayton, Lee County Communications director, said there was capacity for about 40,000 evacuees in Lee County shelters, which also included those set up by the Red Cross.
About 4,000 people used them, she said.
Caution from Irma; too many evacuate and you create havoc on the roads
There were also cautions by state officials as early as Sunday that people should avoid evacuating if they are not in an evacuation zone, a point emergency managers began emphasizing after millions of people tried to flee Hurricane Irma in 2017 and created havoc on the roads.
The evacuation message, emergency managers decided then, needed to be more nuanced, but also asked more of residents.
Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said Sunday that people should check their evacuation zones and stay put if they aren’t in one unless they don’t trust their homes to survive the storm.
People spent more than 20 hours trying to flee South Florida to Georgia before Irma made landfall near Cudjoe Key on Sept. 10, 2017. There was gridlock on Florida’s Turnpike and traffic was crushed at the state line. Law enforcement was needed to escort fuel trucks to gas stations, and then escort station employees to safety so they could operate pumps until just before Hurricane Irma came ashore.
“When Irma was coming upon us, they were showing the outer bands and it looked like the whole state was going to get leveled flat,” said Renne.
Collier County, just south of Lee County and home to high-end shopping, white sand beaches and top-rated golf in Naples, began mandatory evacuations near 5 p.m. Tuesday, about the same time a hurricane warning was issued for the area. Charlotte County, which got crushed by Hurricane Charley in 2004 and is just north of Lee County, began evacuations for its most vulnerable areas at 4 p.m. Monday, ahead of the 5 a.m. Tuesday hurricane warning, which included most of Lee County.
Sarasota and Manatee counties, between Charlotte County and Tampa, both got hurricane warnings at 5 p.m. Monday, Sept. 26. Sarasota began evacuations about two hours later. Manatee issued evacuation orders a few hours ahead of the warning but effective beginning 8 a.m. the next day.
“It’s critical to find out what the counties around you are wanting to do,” said Mark Bowen, who was Bay County Emergency Manager when Category 5 Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle in 2018. “There is a lot of consultation back and forth, so many conference calls; you have to split the team up sometimes to be on them all.”
After a hurricane warning was issued for Michael at 4 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, Bay County ordered evacuations to begin the next morning. The storm made landfall the following day, Oct. 10, a Wednesday. It was a similar to the timeline for the counties that evacuated for Ian but with fewer people to hasten out of harm’s way.
Bowen said about 120,000 residents were asked to leave. After the storm, traffic engineers estimated about 20,000 to 25,000 heeded the order.
The Tuesday 7 a.m. evacuation order in Lee County for Ian called for about 250,000 people to leave. Desjarlais said he expected about 10% would heed the order.
“We blanketed this place with information. I don’t know how anybody who was here could not know that we wanted them to leave,” Bowen said. “But I have met people who said they never knew there was an evacuation order.”
Emergency managers use social media, including Facebook live and live YouTube broadcasts, automated phone calls, scrolls on television screens and news media to spread evacuation news. In some cases, such as with Superstorm Sandy in 2012 in New Jersey, they even drove through the streets shouting through bullhorns.
“Every evacuation is consequential,” said Bryan Koon, vice president of homeland security and emergency management for IEM, and director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management from 2011 through Sept. 2017.
Evacuate when nothing happens, or too far ahead of something happening, or when there’s too much traffic, and people may not leave the next time, even if it’s years down the road. Also, people die in evacuations, and people die in storms. Both risks are weighed.
“Early evacuations are generally better. However, you don’t want to be too early, it needs to be just in time,” Koon said. “Let’s just not assume plans are perfect, let’s fix them if they need it.”
A seasonal shift to fall had models confused about the storm’s path
Hurricane Ian’s path was complicated by a seasonal shift to fall that had models confused about how far south a trough of low pressure would plunge, helping to steer the storm east, said Needham, the extreme weather and disaster scientist.
That led to significant changes in the forecast track of the storm early on, with the cone swinging at different times from Pensacola to east of Miami. Closer to Ian’s 3:05 p.m. landfall on Sept. 28, the track cone had settled somewhat and consistently moved southeast.
Hurricane Ian underwent an eyewall change, turning a disheveled mess into a monster
Also, in the hours ahead of landfall, Ian underwent what meteorologists call an eyewall replacement cycle. It’s a phenomenon that occurs when extreme pressure pushing on the eye of the storm causes it to collapse and a new, usually larger, eye forms. It extends the range of most damaging winds and adds to the overall size, meaning more winds to push more storm surge on shore.
To illustrate just how difficult Ian’s storm surge was to track, Needham, who has studied storm surge for 14 years, went to Punta Gorda in Charlotte County before the storm hit. That’s where he expected to see the highest water levels. Instead, he said water was actually pulled out of Charlotte Harbor because of the angle of the storm.
“Everything shifted so far south the day before landfall,” said Needham. “The pattern we saw was not what we expected.”
Some people, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, misinterpreted the hurricane forecast cone and how it should be used. Others had trouble understanding the devastation that storm surge can bring and that water is far more lethal than wind.
The cone, first introduced in 2002, only tells you where the center of the storm may go, meaning impacts such as wind, rain and storm surge can reach far outside the cone. DeSantis and Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said Lee County was outside of the cone during parts of the forecast in defending the decision on when to evacuate.
However, parts of Lee County, even if it was just the tiny islands of Boca Grande and Cayo Costa (where Ian made landfall) were always in the cone. But that misses the point: impacts occur outside the cone and the worst place to be in Ian was the southeast side of the storm.
“As emergency managers, we are messaging that pretty hot and heavy,” said Walton County Director of Emergency Management Jeff Goldberg, whose area was threatened, but largely spared by 2018’s Hurricane Michael. “Pay attention to the effects that can reach well outside the cone. Don’t pay attention to the skinny black line.”
The cone also doesn’t depict storm surge.
Needham said the people he spoke with after Ian were expecting wind, not water. Also, some longtime residents thought Ian would be like 2004’s Hurricane Charley and 2017’s Irma, which didn’t produce as much surge. Newcomers took cues from the storm veterans, Needham said.
But many said how future forecasts are conveyed to the public and how the evacuations in hardest-hit counties occurred should be reviewed.
“There’s no silver bullet to make people leave,” Goldberg said. “During Hurricane Michael, when we thought we were ground zero, people were not evacuating. We had 100 people in the shelter and we had touched 40,000 phone lines. They just weren’t leaving.”
Naples Daily News reporter Dan Glaun contributed to this story.