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Florida City’s Water Data Sheds Light on Evacuations

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many people flee ahead of a storm — and where to find those who remain — but city and county officials say they get a clearer picture with each passing hurricane season.

Closeup of drops of water falling into water.
(TNS) — When Joe Borcynski’s mobile home fell into the crosshairs of Hurricane Idalia’s forecast track last year, his neighbors in the low-lying Gull Aire Village packed their bags and hit the road.

But not him.

Borcynski, 77, chose to ignore Pinellas County’s mandatory order to evacuate. He’s not shy about his reasons: He moved to Florida full time in October 2022, after Hurricane Ian had come and gone and took Tampa Bay’s fears of a direct hit with it. He’s never experienced a natural disaster. And he doesn’t know where to evacuate if he left home.

“I want to be safe, I just wouldn’t know where to go. I’m intimidated by how far I’m going to have to drive to find a motel room. What would it be like to be in a gymnasium or a common shelter?” Borcynski said. “Those are things I think about.”

Borcynski is one of the thousands across Pinellas who have defied mandatory evacuation orders in recent years as hurricanes churn within striking distance. Local government officials are targeting this populace to combat what they say is growing complacency ahead of what could be one of the busiest hurricane seasons on record.

It’s difficult for emergency managers to pinpoint exactly how many people flee ahead of a storm — and where to find those who remain — but city and county officials say they get a clearer picture with each passing hurricane season.

For one, when people like Borcynski stay behind, they use water. They are flushing toilets, taking showers, doing dishes and washing clothes. Since as early as Hurricane Irma in 2017, Oldsmar utility workers used water consumption data to estimate how many people remain.

Water usage, according to city experts, is not as low as expected, indicating that people aren’t evacuating when they should be.

It could cost them their lives.

Take Hurricane Ian in September 2022. Pinellas County issued mandatory evacuations on Sept. 26 for all mobile homes and anyone living in Zones A through C. The order applied to all of Oldsmar, which averages a mere 9 feet above sea level. That night, water use in the city spiked to 118%, a sign that residents were filling tubs, prepping laundry and stocking water.

But when the storm hit two days later, water use fell to about 76% of normal. While that may seem like a significant drop, the data also includes commercial businesses and industries that closed, and stopped using water, during the storm.

When the water usage in an evacuation zone should have been near zero for the city’s roughly 6,200 homes, a majority of the population decided not to — or couldn’t — evacuate.

“It tells us that there’s more work to do to get folks to evacuate,” said Johna Jahn, Oldsmar’s assistant public works director, who manages the data. “More education is needed.”

“Not a new problem”

It’s not an exact science to study water use, a snapshot in time from a city of roughly 15,000 people, but it helps leaders to be more precise.

After Hurricane Ian made landfall, the University of South Florida surveyed more than 1,100 Pinellas County residents to better understand their decision-making. Nearly half of all respondents said they stayed even though most of them lived in mandatory evacuation zones.

Of the 553 people who said they stayed home, more than 86% said there were no barriers that prevented evacuation. Pet ownership and fear of traffic were two main reasons people said they didn’t evacuate, according to the research, which is still being reviewed.

County officials also heard from residents on a special-needs evacuation assistance list that some were confused about the county’s messaging during Hurricane Ian. When city workers made calls in 2022 to check if any of the roughly 2,200 enrolled people needed help with evacuations, they saw some contact information was outdated, said David Connor, a county spokesperson.

“Complacency is not a new problem, but this is why, every single year, we are looking at the past season about what worked, what didn’t, and where there was confusion,” Connor said. “We look at all of that.”

In Oldsmar, it appears ramped-up education efforts from the city and county after Hurricane Ian may be paying off, if only slightly.

Last year, as Hurricane Idalia churned north along the Gulf Coast and prompted evacuation orders for Zone A and all mobile home residents, water usage again spiked to 117%, nearly identical to the days leading up to Ian a year prior. But this time, usage fell to 68% the day Idalia made landfall. A small 8% improvement compared to Ian — but an improvement nonetheless.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Ashlee Painter, Oldsmar’s environmental management supervisor.

If there’s anyone who knows the risks facing Oldsmar, it’s Painter.

For months, she has helped update the city’s vulnerability assessment, which underscores specific locations exposed to rainfall flooding, storm surge and sea-level rise. A final report is expected later this summer, but in her words, the big takeaway is this: “There really isn’t a place in this city that isn’t vulnerable to water.”

Oldsmar’s motto, boasted on the city’s website, is a nod to its geographical location: “Top of the bay.” But it’s where Oldsmar sits, at the northernmost point of 400 square miles of open water, that leaves it especially vulnerable.

“If water is pushed into Tampa Bay during a storm, it’s pushed to the end,” Painter said. “And we’re at the end.”

Painter is hoping that the upcoming risk report helps underscore to residents how dangerous it would be to stay behind during a mandatory evacuation.

Maybe, she hopes, it will resonate with more people.

“Staying isn’t going to save it”

Given Oldsmar’s history with storm evacuations, city officials last month started encouraging residents to sign a pledge they would evacuate, if ordered, for future storms.

“By pledging to evacuate in advance, you not only prioritize your own safety but also contribute to the resiliency of our coastal community,” the pledge reads.

Just 57 people had signed by the end of May, according to Felicia Donnelly, Oldsmar’s city manager.

One who did is Sandy Teeters. Her mobile home is next to Joe Borcynski’s, her neighbor who chose not to evacuate.

Teeters’ calculus has been the same for every storm that has threatened her Oldsmar mobile home over the past two decades: If she’s inside of the forecast track, she evacuates with her husband, Bill, no later than 72 hours before wind or rain is expected to arrive. The couple fears if they wait any longer, they could get stuck in traffic on the way out, she said in an interview.

Regardless of whether the county issues a mandatory evacuation, Teeters knows the risks. Seven hundred feet from her home, a canal connecting to Tampa Bay threatens to send water into her street with each new hurricane.

“I love my home dearly, and I don’t want to lose it,” Teeters said. “But my staying isn’t going to save it.”

At 83, Teeters considers herself lucky to have a designated place where she can quickly evacuate for each storm. Her son and grandchildren live in Spring Hill in Hernando County. The house is 6 miles inland and 60 feet above sea level, Teeters said.

The Teeters are part of the reason why Oldsmar’s water usage has fallen for every storm since Irma in 2017, when tracking began. Sandy first heard that not everyone evacuated when they should during a recent hurricane expo with city leaders.

“I was very depressed when I heard that,” Teeters said.

But she wasn’t entirely surprised, either. Teeters acknowledged it’s harder to leave home the older you are. Your world gets smaller, she said. Your work friends dwindle, and your family at home becomes the center of your life. Pets make it especially hard, too.

“It’s a very human thing. A lot of people just don’t know the risks,” she said. “Even if we take a near miss, it’s unlikely that our mobile home park here would survive it.”

“It just takes a Category 1″

The complacency problem is always on Joe Borries’ mind.

As Pinellas County’s response and recovery manager, Borries knows people stay behind during storms.

He knows that when fire officials visited county mobile home parks in the past, warning of mandatory evacuation, people hid under their houses. He knows that cellular data shows people staying in their neighborhoods. And he knows that people are using their water at home, flushing their toilets or brushing their teeth, when they should be on the road.

He wants it to change.

“It just takes a Category 1 coming over Pinellas County,” Borries said. “I’ve been telling people, they’re going to be wildly surprised by the devastation and things that’ll occur.”

The last hurricane to make landfall in Pinellas County was in 1921, he notes often. That was more than a century ago.

“The damage will be tenfold,” he said.

Borries regularly reminds people that they don’t have to flee hundreds of miles to dodge the worst of a storm’s impacts. Just a few miles can be the difference between life or death.

“Our message is to just have a plan. These storms are real,” he said. “Take your pets, take your family and friends, and go somewhere to run from the water and hide from the wind.”

This year, Pinellas County emergency managers have budgeted about $39,000 for printing hurricane guides, informational brochures and public outreach, said Connor, the county spokesperson.

The production of a hurricane myths video, featuring local meteorologist Denis Phillips, took about 60 hours of county work by videographers, writers and producers. Pinellas spent $100 promoting it on social media after publication, Connor said. The video has garnered about 4,400 views in the year it has been online.

Bill Andre, also a resident of the Gull Aire Village mobile home park in Oldsmar, doesn’t waste time when county leaders order mandatory evacuations.

The past two storms, he drove with his wife to a Holiday Inn on East Fowler Avenue in Tampa. He figures the four-story building, miles from the water, is safer than his mobile home a few hundred feet from Tampa Bay.

“Fortunately, we’ve never had severe damage,” Andre said. “There’s always the possibility. So why take the chance?”

All he can do is make suggestions or offer advice to his neighbors who decide against leaving town.

His message to them is always simple.


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