TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis continued Saturday to defend the timing of evacuation orders by Southwest Florida officials amid lingering questions about whether they came too late for many residents.
“They were following the data,” DeSantis said in Fort Myers, about Lee County emergency managers who ordered evacuations Tuesday morning, a day before the deadly storm raced into the county with what he had described as “biblical storm surge.”
DeSantis recounted the shifting path of Hurricane Ian, which was seen as likely targeting Tampa Bay shortly before an eastward turn brought it further south along the Gulf Coast.
“When we went to bed Monday night, people were saying this is a direct hit on Tampa Bay, worst case scenario for the state,” DeSantis said, adding that state and county officials have been reviewing how they evaluated the storm’s course.
“Even if it goes to North Florida, if it’s a big storm, you could see the impact in Naples and some of those areas,” the governor said. “But that’s a different type of impact than what we ended up seeing.”
Contacted later, county commissioners also defended the evacuations.
Commissioner Kevin Ruane said the county uses six weather models to make decisions. He said only one saw the chance of a the storm changing direction to hit North Fort Myers was possible. “I got it, you blame somebody. ‘The county screwed up,’ that’s the story, you’ll sell more newspapers,” Ruane said. “A certain number of people are going to agree with me, a certain number are going to say I did something wrong.”
Commissioner Brian Hamman said: “Anybody who has lived in Florida a long time understands the nature of a Floridian. Many of us have been through hurricanes before and have never seen something like this, where the storm surge actually happened the way it happened. Many people who heard the mandatory evacuation, which they had, which is still more than 24 hours, still made the choice to stay anyway.”
“What happened we followed the forecast, followed the data, followed the manual. Our team, they told me, they made the calls they needed to make.”
Commissioner Mike Greenwell said: “I think it’s hindsight, everyone is going to try to find something they can complain about. It’s probably going to become political and that’s a shame because we were all there saying pay attention. We are down here trying to put our pieces back together and we have people in other parts of the country criticize. That’s a shame to me. That’s what it is.”
Lee sheriff has another death toll
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno, who a day after the storm said “hundreds” were dead on the county’s barrier islands — a figure since discredited — said Saturday that the death toll in his county is at least 35, though it has not been confirmed by state officials.
“We’ve had over 600 to 700 rescues of people who are in need during this difficult time, with about 35 deaths,” he said.
The Associated Press has put the storm’s death toll at 27 people. The figure is likely to grow as recovery efforts continue.
DeSantis and Florida Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie had pushed back at a Friday evening briefing in St. Augustine when asked whether the state could’ve better handled storm preparation.
“You may recall that the governor had said if you’re in a situation where you should evacuate, we can 100% guarantee that you will not die from storm surge if you leave,” Guthrie said.
“We need people to heed warnings much more in the future, and evacuate…that’s the best way to save lives,” he added.
Power outages still high
There were about 1.2 million power outages still in the state Saturday afternoon. Lee County was 73% out; Charlotte County, 77% without power; and Hardee County 88% of customers out, DeSantis said.
The storm left a broad trail of destruction in the state, flooding areas on both of its coasts, tearing homes from their slabs and demolishing beachfront businesses.
But with 42,000 utility linemen at work, DeSantis said 1.5 million customers had power restored in recent days.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency also added Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns and Volusia counties, along with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, to the 13 declared disaster areas, meaning residents can apply to FEMA to repair their damaged homes, cars and other property.
The state’s relief fund effort, www.FloridaDisasterFund.org also has collected $20 million, which the governor said can be used to help residents recover what federal aid won’t cover.
“It will help meet needs of people that will not be covered by FEMA,” DeSantis said Saturday.
The following counties were already included in the FEMA declaration: Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole, Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas, and Sarasota. More are expected.
Guard to protect against looting
Jim Eifert, adjutant general of the Florida National Guard, said 1,200 guard personnel are in place in Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties, a force expected to grow to 2,000 in coming days.
“Just to get that presence in the streets to make sure that no looting or crime waves become part of the natural disaster,” Eifert said.
Billionaire Musk provides satellite help
DeSantis in the Hardee County city of Wauchula on Saturday afternoon said that SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk was helping Southwest Florida regain internet connectivity through his Starlink satellite service.
DeSantis said Musk was positioning the satellite to improve coverage in the region and also providing 120 Starlink ground station units to help people nearby to gain internet connection.
“Hopefully, that will assist with some of the connectivity issues,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis and Musk had a political moment in June, when the billionaire said he was leaning toward supporting the Florida governor for president in 2024.
Hardee County endured massive flooding from Hurricane Ian and still may have the state’s lowest level of power restoration, with 88% of the county out of service Saturday. A county emergency official said Saturday she hoped a “good portion” of the county’s electricity would be back by the end of next week.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport
The News-Press and Naples Daily News Reporter Bill Smith contributed to this report.