While local emergency officials say they believe the “vast majority” of the nearly 2.5 million people in evacuation zones along the path of Hurricane Ian heeded warnings and left, some residents have chosen to stay — including 31 people on an unidentified barrier island in Charlotte County.
“They just said that they wanted to stay in, shelter in place,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said he was told by Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Prummell, despite warnings from state and local officials that “you’re risking potentially your life by staying.”
“The local officials were not going to grab them by the shirt collar and drag them out of their own house,” DeSantis said at a 1 p.m. briefing at the state emergency operations center in Tallahassee Wednesday, just hours before the eye of the storm was expected to make landfall.
Kevin Guthrie, Florida director of emergency management, said officials do not know how many people have chosen to stay in evacuation zones, but urged those people to go to http://floridadisaster.org/info to fill out a “shelter-in-place survey” to make it easier for first responders to find them after the storm.
Charlotte County had issued evacuation orders for residents living on the barrier islands of Don Pedro Island, Knight Island (Palm Island), Little Gasparilla Island, Gasparilla Island, and Manasota Key. By midafternoon Wednesday, forecasters said Ian’s center was nearing Port Charlotte and devastating wind damage was expected to pummel the region’s barrier islands.
The governor said recovery efforts will begin immediately after the storm passes, beginning with the attempted rescue of individuals who refused to leave from evacuation zones.
“As much as you may disagree with that decision, if there’s people in harm’s way when the storm passes that need help, we’re gonna be out there helping folks,’‘ he said.
State and local officials, however, are already bracing for a difficult rescue and recovery effort.
There are nearly 250 aircraft in place, more than 1,600 high-water vehicles and more than 300 boats of all drafts and sizes including 250 vessels already positioned in the impacted areas. The governor said the state also is ready to “deliver supplies by water if need be.”
Florida has also been offered assistance from governors in Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana, including Black Hawk helicopters and other air and water vehicles needed for rescue and aid efforts.
DeSantis said that as the first bands of hurricane-force winds reached Charlotte County, power was out for 200,000 people. By 2:30 p.m., that number had reached 500,000 people.
“That is just a drop in the bucket for what’s going to happen over the next 24 to 48 hours,’‘ DeSantis warned.
With 155 mile-per-hour winds battering the state, restoring power will involve rebuilding the power system in parts of the region, which will take longer than just reinstalling power lines, DeSantis said.
He said there are more than 100 portable cell towers ready to be deployed into the area “once it is safe to enter,” and 42,000 linemen and other personnel from 27 states have arrived to help with the recovery.
The Florida National Guard has mobilized over 5,000 members, and 2,000 additional Guardsmen are on standby from other states. In addition to five urban search-and-rescue teams, Guthrie has asked the U.S. Department of Defense to provide additional airlift hoists and high-water vehicles to help with the massive high-water recovery expected after the storm.
DeSantis said the state will be submitting a request for disaster assistance for all 67 counties in the state to be reimbursed 100% of all costs.
State and local officials have assisted in the evacuation of 150 hospitals and healthcare facilities, said Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Simone Marstiller.
In addition to 350 people evacuated from 15 hospitals, Marstiller reported that 3,508 elderly residents of nursing homes were transferred to other facilities and sister nursing homes within the state and about 3,012 residents of assisted living facilities have been moved to safer areas.
“This is a really, really significant storm,’’ DeSantis said. “It will be one of the storms people always remember when they think about Southwest Florida, probably the big one that they always remember.” He said it will compare to Hurricane Michael, which hit Panama City in 2018, and Hurricane Andrew in Miami in 1992.
“This is going to rank up there with that,’’ he said. “So we need the thoughts and prayers over the near term, and then there’s going to be a huge effort on the back end to help people and to get the communities back on their feet.”
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at email@example.com and @MaryEllenKlas