As Hurricane Ian barrels toward Florida, officials there are activating emergency plans and urging residents to evacuate from vulnerable areas.
Ian weakened slightly after passing over Cuba but remains a "major" Category 3 storm, the National Hurricane Center said in a Tuesday morning advisory. It's forecast to reach 130 mph at its peak and hit Florida's west coast on Wednesday, bringing with it heavy rains, inland flooding and life-threatening storm surge.
President Biden has approved an emergency declaration in 24 Florida counties, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken steps including mobilizing 5,000 Florida national guard troops. All told, an estimated 2.5 million Floridians are under evacuation orders as of Tuesday morning, according to DeSantis.
Along the Gulf Coast, the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg are preparing for what could be their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
"This is ... a storm that we hope would never come to St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, and we've been preparing for this as long as I can remember," St. Petersburg Mayor and lifelong resident Ken Welch told Morning Edition's Rachel Martin on Tuesday morning. "The good news is we do have the data and the science and the surge models that show us where the biggest impacts from the surge will occur."
The city began issuing evacuation orders Monday night, and by Tuesday morning was evacuating three out of the five possible evacuation zones. Officials are opening some two dozen emergency shelters in "high and dry" areas, and first responders and the public transit system have already started helping relocate people to them.
Welch says the priority right now is getting people in vulnerable areas to move to relative safety, which may not be as far away as they think.
"The whole purpose of our mandatory evacuations .... is to move those folks from those coastal areas, the beach areas that are most susceptible to flooding, and moving them to a safe location," he explains. "And it's not a matter of having to move 100 miles. [They] could in many cases move five, 10 miles and be in a safe, high zone right in St. Petersburg or in Pinellas County."
Officials are trying to spread the word about these preparations through press conferences and social media, but Welch says there's only so much the government can do. He's encouraging people to reach out to their friends and family members, especially older residents who may be vulnerable to high water and power outages caused by the storm.
Welch believes there's been a "pretty high degree of compliance" with the evacuation orders, especially from people who have lived in Florida for a long time and seen the impact of other storms that have hit the state.
A similar scene is playing out in Tampa, where mayor Jane Castor told NPR's All Things Considered on Monday night that officials' top concern is evacuating people from the most vulnerable coastal areas.
While she's seen "storm evacuation-notice hesitancy" in the past, she says the severity of storms in recent years — and the historic nature of this one — seem to have more people paying attention. Castor, who served in law enforcement for some three decades, says she's heard unequivocally from people who stayed behind during previous hurricanes that "they would never do that again."
Castor urges people to heed the warnings and leave immediately if they live in an evacuation zone.
"You don't have to go hundreds of miles away. You can just go inland to a relative, to a friend's home," she adds. "We can hide from the wind, but we need to get away from that water in those storm surges."
Of course, there are many reasons why people might be reluctant to pack their bags — from uncertainty about the storm's path to fear of leaving behind pets and personal property, their personal risk calculus and the financial cost of a last-minute evacuation (the Red Cross has a searchable database of shelters here).
To Welch, one part of the problem is a lack of awareness.
"The troubling issue is ... a lot of new people have come to Florida, particularly in the last decade, and we've had a lot of near-misses," he says. "So we're trying to just make folks understand 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."
This interview was produced by Vince Pearson and edited by Jan Johnson.
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.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.