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Who is in charge during a hurricane? Hillsborough County and Tampa still can't agree

TAMPA — Who has the authority to order an evacuation during a hurricane?

In Hillsborough County, that depends on whom you ask.

County Administrator Mike Merrill says he alone can call for an evacuation, and that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was out of line when he announced that some city residents needed to leave their homes two days before Hurricane Irma's approach. Buckhorn disagrees.

The rift emerged at perhaps the worst possible moment: during the critical final days before Irma's date with Tampa Bay.

Two weeks after the hurricane passed through Florida, the county and city remain at loggerheads over who can give the command. And experts say that's a potentially deadly problem should another emergency arise.

"The public cannot be expected to respond well when they hear mixed messages," said Richard Olson, a professor of disaster risk reduction at Florida International University in Miami. "The messages have to be clear and consistent and relentless."

The message was anything but clear the afternoon of Sept. 8, the Friday before Irma reached the Tampa Bay area.

At 1:15 p.m., Buckhorn called for a mandatory evacuation in Tampa of residents of Zone A. At the time, Hillsborough County had only issued a voluntary evacuation for special-needs residents of that zone.

The announcement directed people to the county's shelters. One problem: Hillsborough hadn't opened their general population shelters yet.

Buckhorn "ordered an evacuation before it was needed and before we were ready," Merrill told the Tampa Bay Times this week. "Then you had confusion. That's not good for a community."

Then, on Sept. 10, Buckhorn called for a curfew in Tampa to take effect just as the storm approached. But in a briefing with reporters later that day, Merrill said "there never was" a curfew.

Those calls were not Buckhorn's to make, Merrill contends. That power was given to Merrill on Sept. 6 by Hillsborough's emergency policy group, a body that includes officials from the county and its cities, including Buckhorn.

The resolution, which Buckhorn voted for, gave the county administrator authority during the local state of emergency to "determine whether any specific areas or zones of the county are to be evacuated" and to "direct the sequence in which such evacuations shall be carried out, including the time any evacuations are to begin."

"It's in black and white in the emergency order that he approved," Merrill said. "If he had a problem with it then he should have brought it up before the storm."

Tampa city attorney Sal Territo acknowledged the city should have checked to make sure county shelters were ready before issuing an evacuation.

But Territo remained adamant that the city never relinquished its ability to mobilize Tampa residents. Tampa, he said, still has home-rule powers.

Hillsborough took longer than some other jurisdictions to order an evacuation of its coastal residents. Pinellas County announced a mandatory evacuation of Zone A residents for 6 a.m. on Sept. 8. By that afternoon, the city felt it couldn't wait any longer, Territo said.

"Nobody is arguing the county doesn't have lead authority, but we didn't give it all away," he said. "If the county is reluctant to do something and the mayor thinks it's in the best interest of his citizens, the mayor will move forward."

Who is right? Florida Division of Emergency Management spokesman Alberto Moscoso declined to weigh in on the spat, saying those decisions are made at the local level.

But he said the department works primarily with county emergency management officials during storm events.

"They know how to best work with state and local partners," Moscoso said.

It's not the first time the county and city have squabbled during storms. During Hurricane Ivan in 2004, former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and former Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean clashed over use of the media room at the county's emergency operations center. The next year, after Hurricane Katrina, Iorio requested a review of the county's storm plans, only to have her meetings with Bean repeatedly canceled.

Even without dueling decrees, evacuation orders can be tough to decipher. Voluntary or mandatory? Does evacuate mean leave the state or head to a shelter? Are you Zone A, B or C?

Hillsborough County, for example, began with a voluntary evacuation, which came the evening of Sept. 7, the Thursday before the storm, but took effect the next morning at 8 a.m. It was only for special-needs residents in Zone A. The county "strongly urges special-needs residents to observe the voluntary evacuation notice," its statement read.

A day later, voluntary became mandatory and special-needs residents became all residents. Hillsborough's total Zone A evacuation applied to all mobile home residents, no matter where in the county they live. It went into effect at 8 a.m. on Sept. 9.

Ann Fabela of Valrico had heard messages only advising mobile home residents to leave. On Saturday, she left her home for a friend's house. She never heard anything about the evacuation order issued the morning she left, despite watching the local news, she said.

"It wasn't a mandatory evacuation. It was, 'We suggest that you guys get out of there,' " said Fabela, 67. Still, only "a couple" of her fellow Oakhill Village mobile park residents stayed there through the storm.

In Pinellas County, all announcements on evacuations came from the County Commission after consultation with city of St. Petersburg officials.

"That way no one is doing anything independent of one another," said Dean Adamides, the city's division chief of emergency management.

Similarly, the city of Orlando will "follow the lead of Orange County on most issues in order for there to be consistency, for example, with curfews," said Heather Fagan, deputy chief of staff to Mayor Buddy Dyer.

Still, both Adamides and Fagan said they believe city mayors can act without county approval if necessary.

"Should we determine areas of the city need to be evacuated, Mayor Dyer has the authority to make that call," Fagan said.

Turf wars and dueling orders from overlapping jurisdictions are not uncommon in a crisis, especially in areas not recently tested by a major catastrophe, said Olson, the FIU professor. But in studying these events, he said he has found that when officials give mixes messages "there's a tendency for the public just to sit" and stop reacting to important updates from officials.

"It's a major problem if they don't resolve this going forward," he said.

The two sides must sit down soon to get on the same page and improve communication, said Oscar Alleyne, a senior adviser at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, an organization that works with localities on disaster preparedness.

"If agencies are not able to optimally communicate to their residents, unfortunately, you may see confusion," Alleyne said. "You never want to be in that scenario."

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] and Langston Taylor at [email protected]

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