Lee County answers questions about Hurricane Ian evacuation response

Reporter: Peter Fleischer
Published: Updated:
Flooding from Hurricane Ian CREDIT WINK News

The 28-page Hurricane Ian after-action report claims Lee County’s evacuation order did align with pre-existing plans. But the report, and even county officials themselves, admit there can be better transparency to help community members learn when and why crucial decisions take place.

Historic storm surges and violent winds led to more than 70 Ian-related deaths across Lee County, the most casualties any Florida county suffered.

In the storm’s wake, protocols came under fire. WINK News asked for weeks why the evacuation order was released at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 27, not quite 36 hours before Ian made landfall.

The after-action report notes, Lee County followed its protocol closely, so district chairman Brian Hamman and county Director of Public Safety Ben Abes stand by when the evacuation order was announced.

“Once we knew the storm was headed our way, we made the announcement,” Hamman explains. “We were on TV right alongside your anchors saying very clearly, you don’t need to drive across the state, you just need to drive out of the flood zone.”

“I wholeheartedly agree that evacuations were done at the right time,” Abes says confidently.

But the report also admits some parts of the process could be improved.

In the months after the storm, a WINK News investigation revealed the county approved an evacuation order Monday night, Sept. 26, but waited 12 hours to publish it.

The report suggests “the county should communicate about timing and thresholds that result in evacuation…” That change would allow residents to understand what actions the county is considering and what needs to happen before those actions are taken.

“We want to make sure that the message is very clear, that it’s timely,” Abes explained. “But also with the information that is available, if we can forecast when the evacuations might be made, or recommended, that’s what we’ll look at in the future.”

Hamman said the county will take action in the future, creating new positions to help keep elected officials and the public on the same page.

“That communication back and forth is something that we identified in this report that can be improved in the future,” Hamman agrees, “and what we’re going to do is create positions and protocols to make sure that communication takes place.”

Lee County officials assured WINK News, although the Ian recovery effort continues today, they are ready for any type of storm Southwest Florida could see before the end of the 2023 hurricane season. 

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