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The Evacuation Investigation: Lessons Learned

Posted at 5:00 PM, May 22, 2023

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — County leaders say they're still learning from this experience; those lessons, are being discussed in a series of Resilient Lee Task Force meetings led by County Commissioner Kevin Ruane, whose district includes Fort Myers Beach.

Resilient Lee is a task force of Lee County leaders, including mayors and officials from law enforcement agencies to not only look forward to a long-term recovery after Ian but a look back at what failed.

County Commissioner Ruane says in his opinion, communication could have been better between Lee County leaders, School District of Lee County leaders, and law enforcement to have shelters up and ready when needed.

“If we could do anything better, it's coordination,” Ruane said. “I can’t just wake up a day and say, ‘In two hours, I’m going to have people in the shelter.’ It takes planning, it takes coordination.”

Ruane said the Resilient Lee task force also includes representatives from the Lee County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) and the School District of Lee County to make sure that coordination is perfect.

“There are many things we’ll learn and we are not done learning from this, but I can assure you before June, we’ll have the script down perfectly,” Ruane said.

Fox 4 asked for a statement from Lee County School leaders about Ruane’s statements regarding coordination, to which a spokesperson responded:

“The School District and Lee County are in constant communication before, during and after a storm. We were prepared on Sunday, September 25 to close schools on Monday, September 26th for shelters to open. We were informed that we were not needed for Monday the 26th so we maintained normal operations. When shelters were requested for Tuesday the 27th, we immediately responded and closed our schools to start sheltering operations. We remain committed to our partnership with Lee County and the vital role we play in sheltering our community during hurricane season,” wrote Rob Spicker, the Assistant Director of Media Relations and Public Information for Lee Schools.

Looking ahead to the hurricane season of 2023, County Manager Roger Dejarlais said the county is already drafting up an After-Ian Action Report.

Saying like any storm, they are working to do things better ahead of this upcoming hurricane season.

“We are working to examine hindsight as we are preparing for the following season, we are doing that now,” Dejarlais told Fox 4.

“We're always compelled to take a look at everything that happened the entire timeline, all the decisions made to work on getting better for the next time.”

Dejarlais said one of those lessons learned is better messaging for the public.

“What we think happened and this will affect our messaging this coming season. You have a plan, but that doesn't mean activating your plan when we call for evacuations. Activate your plan well in advance of that,” Dejarlais said.

That improvement in messaging, Dejarlais said, includes better explaining and warning about potential storm surges.

“We will no doubt change our messaging a little bit. I think it’ll be easier for people to help understand,” Dejarlais added.

“For example, if there is a prediction of another storm surge, there are lots of graphic material available today that wasn’t available prior to Ian to really demonstrate locally what that looks like. We will be using that.”

At the time of this publishing, Lee County still has not provided a copy of any After-Ian Action Report or a timeline on when a report will be complete.

“We desperately wish that there had been no fatalities. And we will, of course, tweak our messaging. But we had a plan. We had a plan for multiple scenarios, and the plan worked,” Desjarlais said.

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