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CONVERSATIONS: Hurricane Ian poised to send evacuees to central Florida

Image courtesy National Hurricane Center.
Image courtesy National Hurricane Center.

Central Florida is bracing for an influx of evacuees, as the Gulf Coast prepares for a direct hit from Hurricane Ian. 

WMFE environmental reporter Amy Green talked with Craig Fugate, former FEMA administrator and director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, about how many evacuees are expected in the region. 

FUGATE: I think you're gonna see evacuations as far south as Fort Myers. Moving up the west coast places like Bradenton, Sarasota will be also evacuating. Charlotte County, Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte area, evacuations there, all of the barrier islands.

So you know generally people move inland. We tell them to go 10 miles. There will be public shelters opened up in those areas. But you already saw the traffic last night on I-4, people streaming toward the Orlando area.

So, you know, I think we're going to see a migration of evacuees from the west coast moving to the interior, even to the east coast of Florida, as they're following these evacuation orders.

GREEN: Do you have any sense of how many evacuees we might see with this hurricane?

FUGATE: I wouldn't be surprised to see, you know, a half-million or more people moving away from the west coast. And generally they're going to head either towards Orlando. Some will go up I-75 and head up towards where I live in Gainesville.

But the biggest thing is to get people out of those evacuation zones for storm surge.

GREEN: Florida saw record evacuations with Hurricane Irma back in 2017. What lessons have we learned from Hurricane Irma? And how does Hurricane Ian compare?

FUGATE: This one is a lot different in that the principal life-threat is the storm surge on the west coast.

And we've been, everybody's talking about Tampa Bay. But we've got to emphasize it is not just Tampa Bay. South of there, the Manatee River area, Sarasota, the barrier islands. All of these areas are at extreme risk.

And yeah, this is a term that the Hurricane Center uses. I don't think they use this lightly. They're saying, "life-threatening storm surge." Heed the evacuation orders. Move to higher ground.

GREEN: Flooding is a big worry with Hurricane Ian, as it is forecast to slow way down and drop a lot of rain as it nears the Gulf Coast. There's also the threat of storm surge, as you just mentioned. What kind of flooding do you expect here in central Florida? And do you expect many evacuations here in low-lying areas of central Florida.

FUGATE: So if this storm slows down, and those rain bands keep coming across the state, already the Weather Prediction Center has forecast of up to 10 to 15 inches of rain. Widespread six to eight inches of rain. And as this storm slows down, those numbers will start going up.

And so think about the Orlando region. I mean, people drive around there. If you're not from there, you don't realize how many lakes and rivers are all interconnected there. And now start thinking about a foot of rain across the region.

We know that these heavy rainfall events, you know, again, the big life-threat and first, you know, focus will be on the coast.

But we start getting a foot or more rain across central Florida, we're going to have flooding in places that have never seen flooding.

And they're going to have to be, you know, rescues, go out and get people and bring them to high ground.

GREEN: What are some of the biggest takeaways for us here in central Florida? What are some of the most important things we should be keeping in mind at this point? What are some of the most important things we should be doing to get ready?

FUGATE: It's surprising, I think, people that we actually have more people get killed after the hurricanes passes through than we have from the storm itself.

And a lot of that is due to people driving in areas with floodwaters and going off into canals and ditches they can't see and drowning.

And I think this will be something as the storm gets closer. We need to really emphasize the danger doesn't end when the storm passes.

Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.