As Hurricane Ian nears Florida, St. Petersburg and Tampa order evacuations St. Petersburg and Tampa are preparing for what could be their first direct hit by a major hurricane in over a century. Officials there are urging people to comply with evacuation orders immediately.

Floridians in the hurricane's path don't need to go far to get to safety, mayors say

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hurricane Ian is now a major Category 3 storm. It's made landfall in Cuba and is on track to hit Florida's west coast. St. Petersburg and Tampa are preparing for what could be their first direct hit in a century. By the time Ian hits there, it's expected to be a Category 4 storm, bringing a storm surge that could reach 10 feet. The National Guard has been activated, and hundreds of thousands of people are facing mandatory evacuation orders.

Joining us now is the mayor of St. Petersburg, Ken Welch. Mayor, thank you so much for taking the time today. You have declared a state of local emergency for what could end up being the worst storm in a century. How can you possibly prepare for something like this?

KEN WELCH: Well, good morning, Rachel. You know, this is perhaps a storm that we hoped would never come to St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. And we've been preparing for this as long as I can remember. I'm a St. Pete native. The good news is, you know, we do have the data and the science and the surge models that show us, you know, where the biggest impacts from the surge will occur.

And the whole purpose of our mandatory evacuations - which we started last night in Zone A, and we're starting this morning in Zones B and C, so we're evacuating three of the five possible evacuation zones - is to move those folks from those areas, those coastal areas, the beach areas that are most susceptible to flooding and moving them, you know, to a safe location. And it's not a matter of having to move a hundred miles. They could, in many cases, move 5, 10 miles and be in a safe high zone right in St. Petersburg or in Pinellas County. So it's - getting those folks to move is the prime issue right now.

MARTIN: Right. So that, I guess, was my next question. Are they doing it? Are residents leaving like they're supposed to, those who are in those susceptible zones?

WELCH: We're sending a strong message that you need to move when the evacuation order is issued. We've had several press conferences, social media, just sending the word out. And I think, you know, folks that have been here and have seen the impact of other storms around the state understand it. The troubling issue is we've got - as you know, a lot of new people have come to Florida, particularly in the last decade.

MARTIN: Right.

WELCH: And we've had a lot of near misses. And so we're trying to just make folks understand, you know, how strong this storm is and how susceptible we are, particularly in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, to a storm that might just sit off our coast for a while. And it - there's a funnel effect in Tampa Bay that makes those areas very susceptible.

MARTIN: Are there any hospitals or nursing homes in those flood zones?

WELCH: There are. Fortunately, Pinellas County and the city of St. Petersburg have a great emergency management collaboration and with the state as well. And so we are opening 25 shelters that are high and dry. We have special needs shelters. Our first responders have been moving folks into special needs shelters since yesterday. And so while we do have some health care facilities that are in those zones, we have many that are not in those zones as well. And so we're moving those folks. Even PSTA, our transit system, is part of helping folks move to evac centers.

MARTIN: I mean, there are so many retirees. So many people move to that area to enjoy the coast and have this new life. Do you worry, though, about older residents who aren't going to leave, who perhaps don't understand the threat and will be really vulnerable to the high water and power outages?

WELCH: We have to message, and, you know, at some point it gets down to, you know, if you have a friend, if you have an elderly person in your family, in your circle, make sure you reach out and check. You know, government has limits to what we can do. We do send that message out, and I believe we'll get a pretty high degree of compliance. But this is an issue really throughout the state of Florida. At one point, you know, the entire state was in the cone of the projected path. And so that's a part of living in Florida. And folks who come to our state need to understand that when a storm like this comes and you're in an evac area, you need to have a plan, and you need to move when asked to.

MARTIN: The next several hours are going to be crucial. How are you going to spend them?

WELCH: I'll spend them working with our team, visiting our shelters, our sandbag locations. Our emergency management team will be meeting throughout the day and activating our emergency operations center. And so it will be a busy day, but, you know, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County is a strong community, and working together, we'll get through this.

MARTIN: We appreciate your time on this day, and we'll be thinking about you all there. Ken Welch - he's the mayor of the city of St. Petersburg, Fla. Thank you.

WELCH: Thank you, Rachel.

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