Public Safety Director Sandra Tapfumaneyi on preparations for hurricane season.
Public Safety Director Sandra Tapfumaneyi talks about how the county is preparing for hurricane season.
Amanda Inscore, Fort Myers News-Press
New to Florida? Haven’t been through a hurricane? Don’t really pay attention when we do get them?
With less than a month before the start of the 2021 hurricane season, now is a good time to start preparing for the eventuality.
When a storm is bearing down, one of the first decisions you’ll have to make is whether to stay or evacuate your home.
But will you have enough time to get out? There isn’t a simple answer.
After a brutal 2020, another above-normal hurricane season predicted
Evacuating can take anywhere from 12 hours to more than 30 hours for residents living close to the Gulf of Mexico or a large body of water like the Caloosahatchee River or Charlotte Harbor.
“It’s always good to leave early if you have the means,” said Dan Summers, director of Emergency Services for Collier County. “We always want to have our vulnerable areas cleared before the arrival of the sustained 35- to 40-mile-per-hour winds. We want everyone to be secure at that point.”
Hurricanes are a when-not-if situation in Southwest Florida, but it’s impossible to predict where storms will land from year to year.
Staying means avoiding the traffic headaches and that you’ll be home after the storm passes. But staying home can also put you in the worst of the storm and put you at risk of physical harm.
Where you’re most likely to evacuate
Each county plans a staged retreat that starts with the most vulnerable areas and works inland to higher grounds.
The counties are broken into zones (A, B, C, D and E), with A being the lowest-lying areas and E being the safer portions of the county.
A lot of focus is placed on evacuating zones A and B because those are the most likely to be pummeled by a even a Category 1 hurricane.
And they’re the first to be evacuated when a large storm is threatening.
“There are factors: the time of week or time of day,” Summers said. “Are we in season? Is school in session? We always try to coordinate these evacuations during daytime hours, even if it means you call the evacuation earlier because it’s just safer in daylight hours.”
The A and B zones in Collier County basically follow along U.S. 41, with lands to the west and south being most vulnerable.
Those areas take 12 to 14 hours to evacuate, Summers said, depending on a variety of conditions.
COVID-19 pandemic conditions mean shelters will be at less capacity than during a typical hurricane shelter, and that may influence some residents, Summers said.
“With COVID out there, there could be a scenario (when it’s better) to shelter in place rather than gathering in shelters,” he said.
Lee County has more residents than Collier and the other coastal counties in Southwest Florida but has similar times for evacuating zones A and B.
“Moving people out of A and B takes 16.5 hours,” said Sandra Tapfumaneyi, with Lee County’s emergency management department. “(But) we encourage them not to go hundreds of miles. Find shelter with a friend or family in a zone in the county that’s not being evacuated.”
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Shelters as a last resort
Tapfumaneyi said people should only go to shelter when there are no other options.
“The shelters are there as a last option, as a last resort,” she said. “We do have a shelter deficit in Southwest Florida and that’s pretty well known, so we encourage people to look for other options. And you’d be much more comfortable there than at a shelter.”
She said the county looks to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, for guidance when it comes to sheltering the public during a pandemic.
Tapfumaneyi said the county encourages people to bring a mask and hand sanitizer with them.
The eastern half of Charlotte County is pretty much all in the A and B zones, but the western part of the county is a little higher and drier.
Much of the western part of the county would not be evacuated, according to planning maps.
The Myakka River in southern Sarasota County and surrounding lands are mostly in zone A, but much of the lands to the north are much drier than lands to the south, especially Collier County.
Sarasota does have the various zones, but the A and B zones are more condensed there and the higher grounds closer to the coast.
Venice and Nokomis are low-lying areas, and so are the lands and barrier islands in the Sarasota Bay region.
The evacuation times for coastal Sarasota zones A and B are similar, though, to other counties in Southwest Florida.
“It’s 14 and a half hours with zone A to get to shelter and 23 and a half to get zone B to shelter,” said Ed McCrane, emergency management chief for Sarasota County. “We want the public to know their level and we have a tool where they can plug in their address. And if we call for B and they live in B, it’s time to go. But if we’re only evacuating A and they live in B, they’re OK to stay.”
And it’s OK to leave early.
A substantial percentage of Southwest Floridians have the time and resources to leave several days before a storm is forecast to hit, and having those folks leave early can help the overall process.
“We like to issue voluntary, precautionary evacuation for folks that don’t want to deal with the storm at all,” Summers said. “That’s a way to drop the local census 18% and that helps clear roadways and traffic.”
Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.