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The Evacuation Investigation: Who made the evacuation decision?

Sept. 26, News Conference
Posted at 4:49 PM, May 22, 2023

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — Ultimately, Lee. County Manager Roger Desjarlais’ signature would appear on the Lee County evacuation order Tuesday morning, Sept. 27.

Evacuation Order
Evacuation order for Lee County

But to understand how Desjarlais became the evacuation’s ultimate decision maker starts with Gov. Ron DeSantis announcing a State of Emergency on Sept. 23, six days before Hurricane Ian made landfall.

State of Emergency

The State of Emergency means leaders in Lee, and other affected counties, can take action to protect their citizens, including a state-local emergency.

Lee County ordinances say, “It is the intent of the county to designate certain officials with the authority to declare a state of local emergency.”

Ordinance 87-01
Lee County Ordinance on Local State of Emergencies

Usually, that responsibility first falls on the Board’s chair or the whole county commission.

If the chairperson is unable to perform that duty, or the board cannot physically meet, the ordinance says the vice-chair, other board members, a county administrator or an appointed designee is empowered to declare a state of local emergency.

During Ian, six hours after DeSantis’ State of Emergency was filed, county expense records show on Friday night, Sept. 23, Board Chair Cecil Pendergrass was already booked to take a 9:25 p.m. flight to Frankfurt, Germany to attend the Brand USA tourism conference.

Travel Records.png

In a statement, Commissioner Pendergrass said he, “Was in constant communications with staff via phone call, email, and Zoom.”

Pendergrass went on to say, "While under the State of Local Emergency, the County Manager is the acting authority on emergency decisions.”

“Every year, the BoCC liaison who serves as the Chairman of the TDC attends the World Tourism Conference, along with other VCB county staff. I left the week prior to the hurricane, before it was even forecasted, and returned on the first available flight along with other County staff, September 30.  Before, during, and after the storm, I was in constant communication with staff via phone calls, email, and Zoom. That includes the President of the United States and the Governor’s Office. I had more access and communication as I was not in an area that lost service as a result of the storm. While under the State of Local Emergency, the County Manager is the acting authority on emergency decisions as the commissioners are not convening for public meetings. The timing was unfortunate for all of us from the County who attended this conference as we had unknowingly left our homes unsecured and our loved ones during this devastating hurricane.”

Desjarlais confirmed during an interview with Fox 4 Anchor Nadeen Yanes he was appointed designee on Sept. 26.

Lee County Public Information Officer Betsy Clayton said, “There was never a time the county was without a decision-maker in place,” during the 48-hour span of time between the State of Emergency being declared Friday and Desjarlias’s signature as the designee on Monday.

Click here to read about how Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais stands by the decision not to follow the county’s own emergency plan’s timeline.

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