As Hurricane Ian barrels towards Florida, officials there are activating emergency plans and urging residents to evacuate from vulnerable areas.
Ian weakened slightly after passing over Cuba but remains a “major” Category 3 storm, the National Hurricane Center said in a Tuesday morning advisory. It’s forecast to reach 130 mph at its peak and hit Florida’s west coast on Wednesday, bringing with it heavy rains, inland flooding and life-threatening storm surge.
President Biden has approved an emergency declaration in 24 Florida counties, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken steps including mobilizing 5,000 Florida national guard troops. All told, an estimated 2.5 million Floridians are under evacuation orders as of Tuesday morning, according to DeSantis.
Along the Gulf Coast, the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg are preparing for what could be their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
“This is … a storm that we hope would never come to St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, and we’ve been preparing for this as long as I can remember,” St. Petersburg Mayor and lifelong resident Ken Welch told Morning Edition‘s Rachel Martin on Tuesday morning. “The good news is we do have the data and the science and the surge models that show us where the biggest impacts from the surge will occur.”
The city began issuing evacuation orders Monday night, and by Tuesday morning was evacuating three out of the five possible evacuation zones. Officials are opening some two dozen emergency shelters in “high and dry” areas, and first responders and the public transit system have already started helping relocate people to them.
Welch says the priority right now is getting people in vulnerable areas to move to relative safety, which may not be as far away as they think.
“The whole purpose of our mandatory evacuations …. is to move those folks from those coastal areas, the beach areas that are most susceptible to flooding, and moving them to a safe location,” he explains. “And it’s not a matter of having to move 100 miles. [They] could in many cases move five, 10 miles and be in a safe, high zone right in St. Petersburg or in Pinellas County.”
Officials are trying to spread the word about these preparations through press conferences and social media, but Welch says there’s only so much the government can do. He’s encouraging people to reach out to their friends and family members, especially older residents who may be vulnerable to high water and power outages caused by the storm.
Welch believes there’s been a “pretty high degree of compliance” with the evacuation orders, especially from people who have lived in Florida for a long time and seen the impact of other storms that have hit the state.
A similar scene is playing out in Tampa, where mayor Jane Castor told NPR’s All Things Considered on Monday night that officials’ top concern is evacuating people from the most vulnerable coastal areas.
While she’s seen “storm evacuation-notice hesitancy” in the past, she says the severity of storms in recent years — and the historic nature of this one — seem to have more people paying attention. Castor, who served in law enforcement for some three decades, says she’s heard unequivocally from people who stayed behind during previous hurricanes that “they would never do that again.”
Castor urges people to heed the warnings and leave immediately if they live in an evacuation zone.
“You don’t have to go hundreds of miles away. You can just go inland to a relative, to a friend’s home,” she adds. “We can hide from the wind, but we need to get away from that water in those storm surges.”
Of course, there are many reasons why people might be reluctant to pack their bags — from uncertainty about the storm’s path to fear of leaving behind pets and personal property, their personal risk calculus and the financial cost of a last-minute evacuation (the Red Cross has a searchable database of shelters here).
To Welch, one part of the problem is a lack of awareness.
“The troubling issue is … a lot of new people have come to Florida, particularly in the last decade, and we’ve had a lot of near-misses,” he says. “So we’re trying to just make folks understand how strong this storm is and how susceptible we are, particularly in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, to a storm that might just sit off our coast for a while.”
This interview was produced by Vince Pearson and edited by Jan Johnson.
Hurricane Ian expected to be ‘strongest storm’ in a lifetime for Tampa area, meteorologist says
Tampa is bracing for its first major hurricane in more than 100 years as Ian bears down on Florida’s Gulf Coast with threats of devastating winds, flooding and tornadoes, a National Weather Service meteorologist told the Daily News on Monday.
“We’ve been brushed by storms and hurricanes over the last 10, 15, 20 years, but nothing [has been] this close and this strong of a storm,” said meteorologist Rick Davis of the NWS’ Tampa Office.
“For most people in the Tampa Bay region, this will be the strongest storm that they’ve seen in their lifetime.”
Tampa was last struck by a major hurricane in 1921. Forecasts on Monday projected Ian to be just 20 to 50 miles off the shore of the Tampa Bay area by Wednesday, likely smashing the area with hurricane-force winds, power outages and damage, Davis said.
Ian threatened to become a Category 4 hurricane as it moved through the Gulf of Mexico toward Florida.
“The latest forecasts are showing some slowing trends, and so if it slows down, we could have storm surge for a longer period of time, hurricane force winds for the entire [Tampa] area for a very long period of time,” Davis said.
“We’re also expecting heavy rainfall of 6-12 inches, maybe even more,” he continued. “That would create not just storm-surge flooding, but flooding in rivers and places inland, and then there’s the potential for tornadoes. We’re going to be on the favorable side for tornadoes, so we could have multiple tornadoes as well. This system will have essentially all the threats that accompany hurricanes.”
Davis said the latest forecast projects Ian to move ashore near Cedar Key, Fla., about 135 miles north of Tampa.
“If you’re in a low-lying area, if you’re in a storm-surge area, if you live on the beaches or in mobile homes and you are called for an evacuation, we strongly suggest that you do evacuate into a safer location,” Davis said.
“At certain points, the emergency response people — police, fire departments — won’t travel from the mainlands to get to barrier islands if the winds are too strong. People need to take this seriously and take proper precautions.”