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Officials face questions over the late evacuation order in Florida's Lee County

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Officials in Lee County, Fla., issued mandatory evacuation orders only one day before Hurricane Ian hit land despite days of warnings beforehand.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So did that decision contribute to the death toll? So far, we know at least 81 people died in Florida during the storm and its aftermath. And of those 42, more than half were in Lee County.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Brian Mann has been following the story.

Brian, so take us through the timeline. When did officials in Lee County start telling people that they had to go?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah. So three days before this storm hit, the National Hurricane Center sent an advisory saying Ian could drive this devastating storm surge, up to seven feet of water, in this area around Lee County. Then two days before landfall - this is last Monday - the center issued an official warning. And it appears, A, that that warning should have triggered a mandatory evacuation order under Lee County's own emergency management plan. But that's not what happened. While at least one neighboring county did issue a mandatory evacuation order on Monday, Lee County officials held off. They delayed until the next day, Tuesday morning. The storm and the flood of seawater slammed ashore Wednesday, when a lot of people were still out on those remote barrier islands vulnerable.

MARTINEZ: So why didn't Lee County follow their own emergency management plan?

MANN: Yeah. The chair of Lee County's board of commissioners, Cecil Pendergrass, was asked about this at a press conference yesterday. He said they believe the brunt of the storm would hit elsewhere along the coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CECIL PENDERGRASS: Those 72 hours before the storm, we still were not in the cone. Lee County wasn't. So the emergency - state emergency director said that. We noticed that locally. We were working off of data.

MANN: But here's the thing, A. That forecast cone Pendergrass mentions there - that's only the center of the storm. Ian, of course, was a massive hurricane. Its deadly power and the surge of water were predicted by the National Hurricane Center to extend well beyond that path.

MARTINEZ: Now, what does Pendergrass think of this delay and the fact that they didn't follow their plan? Do they think that it may have contributed to any loss of life?

MANN: You know, Pendergrass didn't speak to that directly except to say he thinks responsibility lies with the residents who chose not to leave their homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENDERGRASS: People get callous to that. And we have a lot of people that moved here in the last five years that's never been through a hurricane. And they just say, oh, it's no big deal. They forget about the force of water. So they didn't leave. I respect their choices. But I'm sure a lot of them regret it now.

MANN: But again, for some people who may have wanted to get out, it's possible there just wasn't enough time once that mandatory evacuation order was finally issued. Lee County's own emergency plan warns that it takes at least 20 hours for people on some of those remote islands to evacuate.

MARTINEZ: What has Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said about this?

MANN: Well, he's backing local officials. He told reporters that officials in Lee County made the best decision they could with the information available, and he, too, put responsibility on residents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: Everybody had adequate opportunity to at least get to a shelter within the county. But, you know, a lot of the residents did not want to do that, I think for - probably for various reasons. Some people just don't want to leave their home, period. They're island people, whatever.

MANN: And this is actually something we're hearing from local people in Lee County, survivors of the storm. Many of them told NPR they understood the risk and decided to stay.

Here's Louis Schley, who lives in Fort Myers.

LOUIS SCHLEY: The governor - he gave us fair warning and everything to evacuate and all. But the wife and I decided, no, we're just going to stay.

MANN: But there is a difference, of course, between a warning and a mandatory evacuation order. The question is whether more people would have gotten to safety if the county had issued that order a day sooner.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Brian Mann.

Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.