Tallahassee — People fleeing a major storm from the South Florida coast will likely encounter problems evacuating or finding shelter, according to figures released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Population growth, particularly on the coast, has outstripped the ability of the local infrastructure to handle fleeing residents, let alone tourists.

Many of the “critical facilities” in Southwest Florida, such as schools used for shelters in the event of a big storm, are located where they will be vulnerable to flooding. As a result, available shelters will only be able to serve a tiny percentage of estimated evacuees – 5% or less in a Category 3 hurricane or above. Furthermore, a large percentage of the region’s population is aged or infirmed compounding the evacuation of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

According to the documents released today, it is predicted that the shortage of viable critical facilities will, in turn, force many to leave the region in the event of a big storm. Thus, if a storm the size of Katrina made landfall in southern Sarasota County today, 750,000 units housing about 1,367,210 people would be affected in the four southwestern most coastal counties and two inland counties around Lake Okeechobee. Assuming vulnerable residents evacuated, they would use about 663,000 vehicles for evacuation which would take about 65 hours to clear the region. Multiple regions evacuating South Florida for a major storm would take over 120 hours which is a time equal to the 5 day forecast. Traffic tie-ups will snarl this mass migration, leaving thousands of occupied vehicles stranded in harm’s way.

“If people think that human tragedy on the scale of Katrina could not happen here, they had better think again,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips. “The state is now so over-developed in the zones at highest hurricane risk that the worst case scenarios for major storms look downright scary.”

By July 1, 2008, local governments are supposed to have completed planning for a level of service allowing evacuation time to a shelter of under 12 hours and evacuation out of the county in less than 16 hours. Less than two years away from that deadline, however, it appears unlikely that these evacuation goals, set under the Hazard Mitigation for Coastal Redevelopment law, will be met.

Daniel L. Trescott, the Principal Planner for the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, presented the storm evacuation figures last month at the Southwest Florida Symposium, sponsored by the Council of Civic Associations. The Symposium was a gathering of scientists seeking to compile the latest data on environmental changes and trends in the South Florida.

The point made by Mr. Trescott, considered the “father” of storm surge mapping, and others was that rapid development has outstripped government capacity to adequately respond to hurricanes and other major events. Without firmer controls on development in coastal high hazard areas, the efforts of government planners to designate more or retrofit existing shelters and expand evacuation routes will be for naught.

“Real estate remains king in Florida, inducing government agencies at all levels to facilitate development in the areas of greatest risk, thus making a bad situation even worse,” added Phillips. “We appear to have learned nothing from the last two years’ horrendous hurricane seasons.”


See the Primary Public Shelter Capacity for a Landfalling Storm

Scan the map of Lee County showing the location of its critical facilities

View the estimates of vehicles evacuating Lee County by storm category

Look at the Total Evacuation Times Based on Worst Case Assumptions

Note the growing evidence of rising sea levels