Did Lee County make the call to evacuate before Hurricane Ian too late? It is a question that WINK News has been looking into.
The first mandatory evacuations came at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, September 27. One day before Ian made landfall.
The National Hurricane Center sent out an alert on Monday, September 26, at 11 a.m. warning of the possibility of a life-threatening storm surge along much of the Florida west coast, with the highest risk from Fort Myers up to the Tampa Bay region.
Lee County waited 20 hours to make the call to evacuate, which was too late for many.
The destruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian stretches down every street in the Woodlands community built off Ten Mile Canal. It has flooded during hurricanes in the past.
“We had a little bit of an experience from that, but we didn’t expect anything like this,” said Jon Thomas, who lives nearby in Island Park.
Thomas and his family didn’t realize the danger of Hurricane Ian until it was almost too late to leave.
“We left Tuesday, probably 1 or 2 o’clock. Prior to the storm,” said Thomas. “I didn’t see any presence of law enforcement or police or anybody telling us to get out.”
Some of his neighbors weren’t so lucky. Kathleen Tinder has been confirmed as one of the victims of Hurricane Ian and lived in this neighborhood.
Gerry Christensen knew Tinder for years. “It’s very sad that this happened to her. And we’re sorry to have lost her,” Christensen said.
Community members say in years past, they felt informed in the days before a bad storm. This time around, they didn’t feel adequately warned.
“More warning for everyone to evacuate. I think more people would’ve listened to that and gotten out,” said Thomas.
Lee County leaders delayed making that call because they were expecting the tides to turn, according to County Manager Roger Desjarlais.
“A couple of days ago, Fort Myers, Lee County was right in the very center of the cone of certainty uncertainty. And that’s really the best place to be, you know, three, four days out because the storm will never ever behave that way,” said Desjarlais.
Later that same night, at 6:07, Lee County Commissioner Kevin Ruane posted on Facebook, saying, “Please pay attention to Facebook at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning for a special announcement regarding Hurricane Ian Zone A.”
Thirteen hours later, the evacuation call came for Zone A and parts of Zone B. That was too late for some in the Woodlands community.
There are unconfirmed reports of several casualties there. The Florida Medical Examiners Commission has publicly revealed the identities of less than half of the storm’s victims.
Some people in the Woodlands community are waiting to learn if more of their neighbors will be added to the list.
“If we could’ve gotten more warning and gotten everyone to get out in advance, I’m sure lives would’ve been saved,” said Thomas.
“Some people don’t ever want to go through it again. So, we’re struggling through those decisions ourselves right now,” said Christensen.
WINK News has reached out to half a dozen county officials over the last week. The only one who has responded is Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass, who sources say was in Germany when Hurricane Ian hit.
Pendergrass’ office says he will send a statement when his schedule allows.