Questions keep swirling why a Florida county delayed Hurricane Ian evacuations Most deaths were in Lee County, where local officials delayed hurricane evacuations until the day before the storm hit. Leaders in other nearby counties ordered evacuations a day earlier.

As Ian's death toll rises, questions swirl on why more Floridians didn't evacuate

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

At least 119 people died in Florida after Hurricane Ian struck, and most of those deaths came from drowning in a storm surge as high as 18 feet. The largest number of fatalities were in Lee County, home to three islands that saw the greatest impact. But it was also a county that delayed ordering residents to evacuate for more than a day despite warnings from meteorologists that it would see life-threatening flooding. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Medical examiners are still certifying storm-related deaths, but it's already clear Ian is the deadliest storm to hit Florida since the 1935 Labor Day hurricane. Brian Wolshon is a civil engineering professor at Louisiana State University who studies evacuations.

BRIAN WOLSHON: Obviously, if there's a death, there's a failure someplace. But it's hard to assign where that failure is in the system.

ALLEN: In a hurricane, local emergency managers in Florida are the officials who order evacuations. They rely on information from meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center, who hold calls with local officials to explain forecasts, advisories and key messages for the public. Wolshon says in a disaster with so many deaths, a post-storm analysis will examine why so many people failed to evacuate.

WOLSHON: We're going to look at that and say, you know, where in that chain could it have been communicated better or earlier or more effective?

ALLEN: Many are looking at a decision by officials in Lee County to delay ordering a mandatory evacuation until Tuesday, Sept. 27th, the day before the hurricane made landfall. That was more than a day after the National Hurricane Center warned a life-threatening storm surge up to 7 feet could hit the county. County Manager Roger Desjarlais made the announcement.

ROGER DESJARLAIS: We did consider calling for evacuation yesterday. But given the uncertainty of the path, it - the timing just wasn't right.

ALLEN: Desjarlais says one of the things that convinced local officials to order people to leave was that the track of the storm projected by the National Hurricane Center had shifted south and east. It was just a day before the storm ultimately made landfall in their county. On Sanibel, Fort Myers Beach and other areas, many people stayed. After the storm, reporters asked officials if they waited too long to order the evacuation. They stood by their decision citing the late change in the hurricane's forecast track. Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis, backed them up.

RON DESANTIS: As that track started to shift south in the computer models the next morning, they called for the evacuation. They opened their shelters. And they responded very quickly to the data.

ALLEN: The National Hurricane Center routinely warns officials and the public not to focus solely on the storm's track and cone because the graphic doesn't show the areas that will be impacted or the size of the storm. And Ian was huge, almost 500 miles wide. James Franklin is the longtime chief of forecasting at the National Hurricane Center.

JAMES FRANKLIN: I found it frustrating to hear all the back-and-forth about whether Lee County was in the cone or out of the cone when that really shouldn't have ever been the focus. And it really shouldn't have been part of anybody's decision-making.

ALLEN: Another key fact - National Hurricane Center advisories and graphics showed that the northern part of Lee County was always in the cone. On Tuesday morning, the day before Ian hit, the eye of the storm's landfall was moved south from Tampa to Sarasota County. During that time, the storm rapidly intensified. Franklin says it was a relatively small track adjustment but made a big difference because Ian was approaching the Florida coast at such a sharp angle.

FRANKLIN: So you could have a relatively small track error, left or right, and that would translate into a big change down the coast.

ALLEN: LSU's Brian Wolshon says there are many practical reasons people fail to evacuate before a major storm. It may be about caring for pets, elderly parents or past experience from earlier hurricanes, but it all comes down to one thing.

WOLSHON: If they do not perceive a threat - and the perception could be of how it's communicated to them or what information is provided to them or what their life experience is. If they don't feel a direct life-and-death threat, they're going to be less likely to leave.

ALLEN: The National Hurricane Center will conduct a post-storm analysis of its forecasting and messaging for Hurricane Ian including an examination of why so many died. Gov. DeSantis has said suggested state and local officials would be conducting their own review. Greg Allen, NPR News.

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