With historic Hurricane Irma headed toward Florida and its exact track uncertain, county commissioners were prudent to issue a mandatory evacuation order this morning for all mobile home residents throughout the county and all Level A residents living along the beaches and in other low-lying areas. Tens of thousands of additional residents could be ordered tonight to evacuate, and everyone should pay attention. Plan for the worst, and hope for the best.
As a result, 23 of Manatee County’s 24 temporary shelters will be open by 4 p.m. Friday. County employees are staffing the shelters, along with members of the National Guard who arrived Friday. Shelters should be used as a last resort only, officials said.
Much of the attention on Irma was focused late Thursday on the Florida Keys, Miami and the Interstate 95 corridor along the east coast. But all of Tampa Bay remained in the larger forecast cone, and local officials warned that Irma's path will not become clearer until later this weekend. Models on Friday have us directly in the wide path of Irma.
By all indications, Tampa Bay is taking Irma seriously. Schools are closed and most weekend events are called off. Residents have filled tens of thousands of sandbags, stocked up on food and water and gassed up. Most hotels are full for the weekend, and generators, flashlights and other supplies were still in high demand. Don't forget to get some cash in case the power goes out. For a region that has not faced a serious hurricane threat in more than a decade, the preparations have gone reasonably well so far.
Yet evacuation orders can be ignored by some who are too focused on Irma's precise path and too complacent because of attention on southeast Florida. As local officials and weather experts keep reinforcing, it's too early to rule anything out. This is a monster of a storm that can still drift hundreds of miles. Even if it remains generally on the east coast, there is at least an even chance Tampa Bay could feel tropical storm-force winds and rain. Even a small shift to the west would increase the impact here, and a more significant drift would mean much worse.
With northbound traffic heavy on Interstate 75, everyone in this area should have a plan now if more evacuation orders come tonight and Saturday.
Across Florida, preparations are appropriately escalating. Gov. Rick Scott has worked on issues ranging from fuel to calling out every member of the Florida National Guard by today. Miami-Dade County is attempting its largest evacuation ever, with more than 650,000 residents told to leave before Irma arrives. Attorney General Pam Bondi has been addressing reports of price-gouging on water, airline tickets and other storm-related purchases.
The last time a Category 5 hit Florida was Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It killed 65 people and left behind more than $26 billion in damage. Irma is much larger and could be similarly catastrophic or worse, depending on its path. This is a tough test of leadership and responsible preparation throughout Florida, and Tampa Bay residents should be ready and prepared to follow all evacuation orders.