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Calls to 911 During Idalia Conveyed Fear, Regret

“I’m stuck, I need to be evacuated,” the caller told a dispatcher, his voice quavering in a rapid-fire string of sentences. “I’ve called a couple of times. I just need to know what’s going on, if I need to try to swim out of here.”

a truck halfway in a water canal
A truck ended up in a canal, part of the aftermath of Hurricane Idalia in Horseshoe Beach, Florida, last month.
Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS
(TNS) - As Hurricane Idalia pushed storm surge onto Redington Beach, a man dialed 911 for the third time that morning.

“I’m stuck, I need to be evacuated,” the caller told a dispatcher, his voice quavering in a rapid-fire string of sentences. “I’ve called a couple of times. I just need to know what’s going on, if I need to try to swim out of here.”

“I need you to take a breath, OK?” the dispatcher told him.

The call was one of dozens the county’s 911 center received from people seeking help evacuating as Idalia barreled north through the Gulf of Mexico. The Tampa Bay Times received the audio and dispatch notes for more than 50 such calls through a public records request.

Nearly all the calls reviewed by the Times were made by people who had not heeded mandatory evacuation orders — or were calls placed on their behalf.

The Redington Beach man was among them and made his third 911 call about 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday Aug. 30. More than 30 hours earlier, Pinellas officials had ordered evacuations for Zone A, which includes all of the barrier islands.

The caller lived on Redington Drive not far from the Intracoastal Waterway and had chosen to stay. Now floodwater was about four feet deep outside his home and roughly a foot high inside — and rising quickly, he said.

The dispatcher said help was on the way

“They’re coming as fast as they safely can,” the dispatcher said.

“That could be hours,” the caller said.

“I understand that this is a scary situation but we need to make sure everyone stays safe, OK?” the dispatcher said. “So it might feel like a long time because it’s a scary situation, but I promise they’re coming as fast as they can, OK?”

“I don’t know what to do,” the caller said. “Should I get on the roof?

“I know this is my fault,” he said a moment later.

In those early morning hours, some residents called because water was lapping at their doors or already inside. Floodwaters had trapped them in their homes and neighborhoods, and they worried about how much higher the water would get.

Some callers, like the Redington Beach man, apologized to dispatchers, realizing he should have evacuated.

“I shouldn’t have stayed”

Because Idalia stayed offshore until making landfall well north of Tampa Bay, the region did not get the direct hit and associated high winds and raging surge that Fort Myers experienced during Hurricane Ian in 2022 or that Bay County in the Panhandle endured with Hurricane Michael in 2019.

But Pinellas officials told people in Zone A to leave, an order that applied to about 338,000 residents on the county’s coast, barrier islands and in mobile homes.

“We’re issuing these evacuation orders and giving protective measures so we can get people out of the biggest threat areas and move them further inland or into more substantial structures to get them out of harm’s way,” said Cathie Perkins, Pinellas County’s director of emergency management.

Perkins said the county doesn’t have an estimate for how many heeded the directive. But many chose to stay.

No deaths or serious injuries due to Idalia were reported in Pinellas, but according to county officials, the Pinellas 911 center received more than 800 calls between 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 29 and 5 p.m. the next day. Of those, 63 were categorized as evacuation or water rescue calls.

The Times requested the evacuation and water rescue calls to get a sense of the situations people faced. The county redacted caller names, phone numbers and house and apartment numbers from the calls and dispatch notes, but in nearly all cases, the entirety of a caller’s street, and sometimes their entire neighborhood, was in Zone A.

“The responders were able to go out to these calls, whereas if the storm was closer and the surge had been higher, that would not have been the case,” Perkins said.

Evacuation calls started lighting up the county’s 911 center early on the morning of Aug. 30. By then, flooding and storm surge pushed into coastal areas. At 5:30 a.m., authorities closed access to the barrier islands. Most of the earliest calls that day came from there.

At 1:42 a.m., a man dialed 911 and said water was almost to the porch of his apartment on 3rd Street East in Madeira Beach.

A senior citizen who sometimes uses a wheelchair, the man said he “didn’t think it would get this bad.”

Like the Redington Beach caller, he expressed regret.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have stayed,” he told the dispatcher.

The dispatcher gave the man what would be an oft-repeated directive to callers over the next several hours.

“Prepare for evacuation,” the dispatcher said. “We’ll notify the fire department, and they’ll respond after their emergency calls.”

First responders during Idalia prioritized calls based on whether there was a medical or other emergency, said James Fogarty, the county’s director of safety and emergency services.

“If you’ve got a house with three feet of water in it, and someone two blocks over, their house is on fire, the people whose house is on fire are going to get the emergency response,” Fogarty said.

Another call from Madeira Beach that Wednesday morning highlighted the peril of trying to evacuate after roads were flooded.

About 3:25 a.m., a man called to report that he, his girlfriend and their dog were stuck in his stalled truck on a flooded street just east of Gulf Boulevard. He said they’d left his house on nearby Normandy Road when it started flooding but only made it to the nearby intersection of South Bayshore and Vivian drives when his truck got stuck in water he estimated to be as deep as four feet.

Water was seeping into the truck and was about an inch high on the passenger side floorboard.

Tensions inside the truck began to rise when the man’s girlfriend said she wanted to get out. The man told her that they needed to stay in the truck.

“You’re OK, you’re OK, everything’s OK,” the caller told his girlfriend. “You’re fine. Damn, we should have just stayed.”

A little later and nearby, another man told a dispatcher his apartment on Boca Ciega Avenue was flooding.

“I’ve got three feet of water in my house,” he said. “I gotta get out of here.”

When the dispatcher told him the fire department would come when they could, the man asked when. The dispatcher said she couldn’t give an estimated time of arrival.

“They’re gonna respond as fast as they can after their emergency calls, OK?” the dispatcher said.

Minutes later, another Madeira Beach resident called and said she and her 8-year-old son and their dog were stuck in her car in front of their home near the corner of 154th Avenue and 2nd Street SE.

“We were fine until one of the sandbags washed away and water started coming in the house and our stove started sparking and catching on fire and so we got in my vehicle,” the caller said, “and we are now stuck in my vehicle and water is rising, and we can’t get out.”

The son’s voice could be heard in the background and the woman tried to comfort the boy.

“We’re not gonna die,” she said. “We’re gonna be OK, honey. We’re gonna be brave. We’re gonna be fine, honey. We’re gonna get through this. We’re a team.”

“I’ve never been through this”

By daybreak on Wednesday, evacuation calls started pouring in from other parts of Pinellas.

Shortly after 7 a.m., a woman living on East Harbor Drive S, northeast of Lake Maggiore in the Harbordale neighborhood, called for help for her and her two children. She said the water outside had nearly reached the hood of her car and had risen to her knees inside the house.

“I had no idea until I woke up about an hour ago, and I stepped down into water and it’s just getting higher and higher,” the woman told the dispatcher. “We just cannot get out.”

She said they weren’t far from dry ground but feared what lurked in the floodwaters.

“I’m by a lake, I believe it has gators, so we definitely can’t walk out into this,” she said.

The dispatcher told her the fire department would come when possible and that if anything changed to call back.

“Well, I tell you right now, I’m about to have a panic attack,” the woman said. “I suffer from anxiety.”

“I understand, I definitely understand,” the dispatcher said. “I know it’s scary but like I said, we have a lot going on right now.”

“Well, they need to come and help us,” the caller said.

“I’m going to tell them everything you told me,” the dispatcher assured her.

A woman in Oldsmar nearly started crying as she asked what her options were to escape floodwater that had swallowed much of her car.

“We have dogs and it’s just myself and my daughter,” she said, her voice breaking. “I’ve never been through this.”

In Palm Harbor, a woman on Westwinds Drive said she was handicapped and legally blind with two small dogs and had been trying without success to flag down people driving up and down the flooded street.

“I have everything packed up ready to go but my boyfriend decided all of a sudden he doesn’t want anything to do with me and he’s barricaded himself in the house but he won’t drive us anywhere,” she said.

By 7:30 a.m., calls started coming in from Shore Acres. The entire St. Petersburg neighborhood is in Zone A, and an assessment by the city found that of the 1,466 homes in the city that suffered damage from Idalia, 1,206 of them, or about 82%, were in Shore Acres.

“Unfortunately, we decided to stay through the storm,” a man who lives on Oklahoma Avenue NE told a dispatcher about 7:45 a.m. “We had no idea it would be this severe.”

The man said he was recovering from hip surgery and used a walker.

“It’s starting to come in the house and I understand the afternoon might get worse, so we thought if we get out some kind of request, if there’s any help.” he said.

Shortly after, a woman called asking for help for her daughter, who’d left her flooded Shore Acres home on foot. The woman said the daughter was able to keep water out of her home in 2020, but not this time. The mother said she got in her car to try to reach her daughter but the floodwater was too high to continue.

“She’s carrying two big heavy cats that are 18 pounds a piece and a little dog and she’s trying to walk out and I don’t know what to do to help her,” the woman said.

About 20 minutes later, the woman called back to cancel the call — her daughter was with her and safe.

Another Shore Acres resident who called from her home on Overlook Drive NE about 8 a.m. also worried about high tide later that day. Her house already had about an inch of water inside.

“We’re taking on water and I’m finding out the next tide is coming in at two o’clock, and I don’t think we’re going to be able to take it,” the woman said. “I thought we’d be OK because we’ve never had water like this before in here.”

“Until it’s staring them in the face”

Officials acknowledge some people face challenges evacuating, but the county has programs to help, such as a special needs registry and free transportation to shelters.

Many residents base their decisions on whether they’d been previously affected by a storm, Perkins said. People who found themselves trapped might reconsider next time. Residents who were spared might have their tendency to stay reinforced.

“Often people don’t appreciate that they’re in danger until it’s staring them in the face,” said Fogarty, the emergency services director. “And then when it’s staring them in the face, their options of what to do about it become very, very limited. And it’s not that people don’t want to help, but sometimes they just can’t and so if you do make that personal decision to not get out of harm’s way, then that comes with a price to pay sometimes.”

Fogarty said the region again got lucky when the storm stayed off shore and did not deal a direct hit.

“If it had, we would be talking about a lot of very sorry people,” he said. “We would be talking about how many funerals have we gone to.”

Dispatch notes show at least two fire rescue vehicles responded to help the Redington Beach man who called multiple times. One fire engine got within four blocks of the home but couldn’t go farther because the water had reached the top of the wheels.

By 3 a.m., however, less than half an hour after his last call, the man had been rescued.

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