Study finds some Bay Area communities at risk if evacuations are ordered

Sarasota County

SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) – A new study reveals if a dangerous storm forces a mandatory evacuation some bay area residents would have trouble getting out.

Researchers found some local communities have very limited options for evacuation routes.

Two years ago, Hurricane Irma set its sights on Florida. Longtime Siesta Key resident Mary Schuh panicked and left the island.

“Irma was terrifying. When Irma came, we were prepared to come back to nothing,” said Schuh.

A study found serious problems for people like Schuh.

Streetlight Data analyzed evacuation routes at 30,000 communities nationwide.

Siesta Key ranked 20th in the US for its limited routes. Local communities have issues as well- too many people, not enough routes.

“Just getting off the barrier island doesn’t get you out of harms’ way in the event of an evacuation,” said Dave Hutchinson, Executive Director of the Sarasota Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Sarasota Manatee MPO uses federal funds to improve the transportation network on the island. “One of the elements of our long-range plan is the recognition of the importance of a robust grid, a transportation network that provides alternative routes getting to and from various places, as well as alternative means so we’re not all relying on single-family cars,” said Hutchinson.

They are exploring all options to improve traffic year-round.

“We have analyzed whether or not a one-way transit lane that could be used for buses going both directions would be effective, and that would also be helpful in the event of an evacuation,” he said.

If needed, officials can control traffic lights to move people quickly.

Hutchinson said it’s important to focus on the big picture.

“Just getting off the barrier island doesn’t get you out of harms’ way in the event of an evacuation,” he said.

The state is conducting studies to improve evacuation routes on Interstates and turnpikes.

“Getting off those barrier islands is just part of the problem and all it does is get you to gridlock further out on I-75,” said Hutchinson.

Sarasota County officials get an opportunity to have a dress rehearsal each summer.

“The best example of why I’m not concerned is 4th of July,” said Sarasota County Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane.

On that holiday, the population on the island can quadruple thanks to visitors and tourists.

Law enforcement is brought in to handle traffic.

“They get thousands of cars off in just a few hours,” said McCrane.

McCrane says there have never been problems evacuating residents from Siesta Key. He points out there are plenty of contingency plans in place. He highlighted a study done a few years ago that showed the amount of time needed to evacuate barrier islands.

McCrane said the study recommended that Siesta Key be given 30 hours to evacuate. When Hurricane Irma threatened in 2017, Sarasota County gave residents 36 hours to get out.

“Our job is to give them the right information, keep them calm, have them prepared and have them make that decision,” said McCrane.

He said the study shows why it’s important to be prepared early.

“You don’t have to go hundreds of miles, just tens of miles. Emergency managers like to say- run from the water, hide from the wind,” said McCrane.

“If you’re in one of these most vulnerable areas within our region then you might need to be one of the first to evacuate,” said Hutchinson.

If a storm threatens, Schuh doesn’t think twice about leaving. “If Siesta Key goes, my house goes. There’s no hunkering down with water, I’ve got to put it in the car and go because, we’ll be gone,” she said. “The next one might be the one, so you have to pay attention every single time.”

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