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Florida governor defends the timing of Lee County officials’ evacuation ahead of Hurricane Ian

By Andy Rose, Paradise Afshar and Steve Contorno, CNN

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Lee County officials acted appropriately when they issued their first mandatory evacuations on Tuesday, less than 24 hours before Hurricane Ian made landfall on the state, and a day after several neighboring counties issued their orders.

“They were following the data, and you remember people were looking initially at the panhandle on Sunday,” the governor told reporters in Fort Myers on Saturday, referring to where the storm was expected to hit. “Then Monday came and people were thinking maybe north of Tampa Bay. When we went to bed Monday night, people were saying this is a direct hit on Tampa Bay, worst-case scenario for the state.”

“As that track started the shift south, and the computer models the next morning, they (Lee County officials) called for the evacuation, they opened their shelters and they responded very quickly to the data. But at the end of the day, Fort Myers and Naples, on Sunday, I think at the 11 a.m. advisory, 72 hours out, they weren’t even in the cone. That’s just the reality, so they followed it very closely,” he added.

The cone of uncertainty is what forecasters use to represent what’s likely to be the center of the storm. Storm impacts can — and often do — extend outside the cone.

At least 74 deaths suspected to be related to Ian have been reported in Florida, with the majority in Lee County. The sheriff there reported 42 deaths. The state’s death toll also includes 12 in Charlotte County, eight in Collier County, five in Volusia County, three in Sarasota County, one in Polk County, one in Lake County, one in Manatee County, one in Hendry County, according to county and state reports.

DeSantis’ Saturday comments come amid criticism over how Lee County officials handled the evacuation orders. His remarks echoed what he said at an earlier news conference in the county, where he defended his administration’s response and said communities “sprung into action” as predictions shifted the storm south.

Officials are facing mounting questions about why the first mandatory evacuations weren’t ordered until a day before Ian’s landfall — despite an emergency plan that suggests evacuations should have happened earlier.

While the cone did not include Fort Myers or Naples three days before the storm made landfall, Ian made landfall Wednesday in Cayo Costa in Lee County, a point which was inside the cone 72 hours before the storm’s landfall and in all of the other dozens of cones issued for the storm.

Lee County issued a mandatory evacuation for Zones A and B — which include the hard-hit coastal areas — on Tuesday at 5:20 p.m. ET, according to a tweet by the county government.

Other counties in the Ian’s path, such as Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties spent the day Monday issuing evacuation orders. And even before Hillsborough County issued the formal order, Tampa’s mayor was urging the public to evacuate.

“If you can leave, just leave now, and we will take care of your personal property,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor told Kate Bolduan on CNN’s At This Hour around 11 a.m. Monday.

Lee County’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan states a 10% chance of 6 feet or more of water “would indicate the need” for hurricane evacuations in the most vulnerable areas.

National Hurricane Center advisories, reviewed by CNN, make first mention of “4-7 feet of surge” for that area as early as 11 p.m. Sunday, three days before landfall. That level of surge was predicted for an area from Englewood to Bonita Beach, which includes the entire Lee County coast.

By 8 a.m. Tuesday, around the time of the first evacuation message, the NHC upped the storm surge forecast to 5-10 feet. And by 11 a.m., the forecast was expanded to 8-12 feet of storm surge for all of Lee County.

When pressed by CNN’s Dana Bash on State of the Union, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican, declined to assign blame in Lee County, saying, “We’re going to look and find out” if proper evacuation procedures were followed.

“I think once we get through this, we do an assessment. What I’ve always tried to do as governor is say, okay, so what did we learn in each one of these,” he said.

Lee County Commissioner Kevin Ruane told CNN on Sunday that reports about county officials possibly delaying a mandatory evacuation order prior to Ian’s landfall are “inaccurate.”

“We’ve done everything we can from using state resources, federal resources to make the necessary arrangements that we have,” Ruane said. “I think the most important thing that most people need to understand is we opened up 15 shelters. During Irma there were 60,000 people in our shelters, there’s 4,000 people in the shelters right now.”

Speaking to CNN’s Jim Acosta Saturday, Fort Myers city council member Liston Bochette was asked about the evacuation time he and fellow residents were given. Fort Myers is in Lee County.

“Obviously, about one time in ten when they warn you, it happens,” Bochette told Acosta. “Well, this is that one time. And people did not evacuate as they should have. And I think we’re lulled into … this is a little paradise corner of the world and we got lulled into a passive mindset that it’s not going to hit us.”

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CNN’s Brandon Miller, Matthew Hilk and Curt Devine contributed to this report.

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