Evacuation Orders Ignored: Florida Keys Residents Expect 5- to 8-foot Storm Surge

October 23, 2005

Residents of the Florida Keys are awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Wilma, projected to barrel just north of the island chain early Monday morning.

National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Devanas said the Keys could see a 5- to 8-foot storm surge from Wilma, which was expected to hit in conjunction with local high tides between 2 and 6 a.m. Monday. Wind gusts could reach 90 mph, Devanas said.

National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said Sunday that Wilma won’t stay long in the Keys.

“It’s really going to take off like a rocket” as the storm approaches Florida , he said. “It’s going to start moving like 20 mph.”

Visitors were ordered to leave the Keys on Wednesday and a mandatory resident evacuation went into effect Saturday. But county officials said Sunday they were disappointed in the response.

“It looks like no one left the Keys,” Irene Toner, Monroe County director of emergency management told the Key West Citizen. “That creates a concern for us … because after the fact, there will be no power, road problems, flooding – a lot of people will need a lot of assistance.”

There was no way of knowing exactly how many actually left, but it appeared only about 20 percent of the 78,000 Keys residents fled, Billy Wagner, senior Monroe County emergency management director said.

“If they don’t get out of there, they’re going to be in deep trouble,” he said Sunday.

Toner pointed out that no medical care is available during and immediately after the storm.

Lower Keys Medical Center shut down emergency services at 10:30 a.m. Sunday. Toner said everyone should be especially careful while emergency medical care is unavailable.

Marathon Mayor John Bartus said officials in the Middle Keys city, the second-largest in the Keys, are also concerned about the lack of evacuation response and the prospect of a community without an emergency room during a disaster.

“I’m worried about people in trailer parks who haven’t sought shelter or left town,” Bartus said. “If they do get hurt, they’re on their own for a while.”

Monroe Sheriff Rick Roth said he thinks locals didn’t leave because they are tired of hurricane scares.

“Our Florida Department of Transportation traffic counters indicate traffic is no more than usual,” Roth said. “The shelter [at Florida International University] is only holding a couple hundred.”

Roth said he also thinks the long voluntary evacuation period also lulled residents into complacency. “People did leave, but not in the numbers that they have in the past,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Office dispatched deputies Saturday and Sunday to warn residents of mobile-home parks and low-lying areas to quickly evacuate or seek higher ground.

The Sheriff’s Office expects flooded roads up near Lake Surprise in Key Largo , and at Sea Oats Beach in Islamorada, which flooded during Hurricane Rita on Sept. 20.

“We have Department of Transportation equipment standing by to clear the roads without waiting, before even the winds die down, hopefully,” Roth said. “We hope not to have to close any roads afterward.”

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