TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Living in Florida means you learn to watch the hurricane forecast tracks closely. Each six hours a new track is released based on modeling data.

Inevitably, those tracks shift as more information becomes available, so residents along a large swath of Florida’s coastline must stay aware as storms enter the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s what happened last year with Hurricane Ian. Many residents in the hardest hit areas did not expect that late push to the south, and they were not prepared.

“I’m kind of old school. I always think that any storm could beeline for us,” said Cathie Perkins, the Director of Pinellas County Emergency Management.

She leads a large team that goes into overdrive when a storm starts trending toward west Florida.

“We’ve got 265 mobile home parks. We’ve got 19 hospitals. I’ve got over 240 long term care facilities. We have over 5,300 vulnerable people who have registered for special needs. These are all things that we have to take into consideration,” she explained.

She speaks in terms of “clearance times.” That means how long it takes to get all the people out of harm’s way.

“Our clearance time could be anywhere from 17 hours for a Level A evacuation to 50 hours for a Level E evacuation,” Perkins said. She’s also acutely aware that changes in the forecast can impact those times.

“We can see that it can change with a 6-hour period with every advisory that comes out. If that storm speeds up or if it gets larger, we’re going to lose time,” she explained. That is why some parts of the area may be issued evacuation orders before a Hurricane Watch or Hurricane Warning is even issued.

When that order to leave is given, Perkins and other emergency mangers expect people to leave quickly. That means that homeowners and residents need to have already done their preparations.

“We were keeping track of it 10 plus days out. It’s kind of hard to determine, but you got to keep an eye on it,” said Tampa resident Rob Gorman. He and his family paid close attention to Hurricane Ian before it even made it into the Gulf of Mexico.

Some of the early tracks took the system toward the Panhandle of Florida, but the Gormans continued their preps.

“Then, we booked a hotel, actually the Hilton in Naples. We though that would be a great place to go, and as it started to shift, we booked an AirBNB on the east coast,” recalled Gorman.

Now that Gorman and his family had a place to go during an evacuation, they started to secure their home. Director Perkins reminds people that preparations like this take time. It took the Gormans more than six hours to put up the shutters and several more to bring everything from the backyard into the garage. Once that the house was secure, they packed the car.

“So we packed the essentials, stroller for our kids, some water and some clothes just in case. We sat that night to think about it and really decide what we needed to do,” said Gorman.

Gorman set his alarm at 2 a.m. to get all the updates as they came in.

“We decided to see one more update in the morning. At that point, it looked like it was probably going to go south, so we decided to hunker down,” he recalled.

He researched local shelters just in case of a late change in the track or if flooding from heavy rain became a problem, and they needed somewhere to go for just a few hours.

Finally, he cranked up the air conditioner to bring the temperature of the house down in case the power went out. In the end, Gorman and his family spent the night in the living room together as Hurricane Ian’s winds whipped through Tampa.

They took the situation seriously and had a plan for whatever happened.

“The worst case is just waiting and not doing anything and the worst case scenario happens, and you can be in trouble,” he warned.

Director Perkins echoes that warning.

“We want people to understand that time is the one resource you can’t get more of, so once we’re in that cone, the time is ticking down to potentially when we might have to shelter in place,” she said. Her office offers a guide that explains what preparations should be done as the storm gets closer to the coast.

People like the Gormans get the preparations done early and then have the option to scale them back if the storm trends away from us. Perkins reminds us that if you wait until the last minute to start those preps, there will not be enough time.