TAMPA — It could be a safe statement that people in the Tampa Bay area don't have much recent experience evacuating for hurricanes.
The tumultuous hurricane season of 2004 triggered some evacuation orders. But hurricanes Frances and Jeanne were coming across the state and weakened. Hurricane Charley that year should have produced a mass evacuation but the storm twitched into Punta Gorda and residents here mostly ignored orders to leave.
In the eight years since, others have moved to the region who have never seen county officials appear on television and tell them to leave their homes for a storm.
“A lot of people here have never heard an evacuation issued,” said Nacole Revette, a spokeswoman for Hillsborough County's Office of Emergency Management.
The Tampa Bay region of Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Manatee counties has 700 miles of shoreline, including inlets, and 900 miles of coastline. Those 1,600 miles are vulnerable to a hurricane's storm surge, the wall of water that bulldozed coastal areas during last year's Hurricane Sandy and can be a storm's most destructive, deadly force.
Emergency officials order coasts and shores evacuated to escape the storm surge that washes over land. Evacuations are meant to get residents clear of areas coastal flooding will submerge.
“You run from the water and hide from the wind,” said Hillsborough County emergency management specialist and planner Ted Williams.
Should I evacuate?
Coastal and shoreline evacuation areas are based on how far inland flooding is expected to reach for each category of hurricane, and evacuations are ordered based on the storm strength with a Category 1 hurricane prompting evacuations in Zone A and possibly Zone B if it could strengthen. More powerful storms would push the evacuation farther inland and include more of the five zones.
Whether you should evacuate depends on where you live and the strength of the storm. That is the first thing people should know, Revette said.
Counties use color-coded maps to show the five evacuation levels and some reach far inland along rivers or tidal creeks. You can check county emergency management websites according to your address or call the emergency management offices.
Everyone living in a mobile home regardless of its location should evacuate for any level of storm.
You can't wait for an evacuation order to prepare, Revette said.
That means taking steps well before a hurricane looms in the Gulf.
Here are some things emergency officials say you should remember when planning for an evacuation:
First, plan, plan, plan
Gather what you'll need to evacuate and be prepared to spend several days away from home. Also, get in touch with a family member outside the area who will be a contact and will know where you expect to be. Being prepared to evacuate is the biggest and most important step.
You'll have lots of company in an evacuation and roads will be crowded so leave when officials say. Even a Category 1 evacuation could put 196,000 people on the roads in Hillsborough County alone and another 229,000 from Pinellas, many of whom will decide to drive into Hillsborough, Manatee or Pasco to get away.
The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council's evacuation study estimates it will take more than 15 hours for Hillsborough evacuees to reach a safe location inside the county for a Category 1 storm. For a Category 2 storm it could be up to 23 hours. That doesn't include traffic from other evacuees outside of Hillsborough.
Also, causeways across Tampa Bay will close when water splashes over the approaches and bridges like the Skyway shut down when winds hit tropical storm strength.
But don't drive to Orlando
You only need to go farther inland than the storm surge is expected to reach. That means a building, house or shelter on higher ground is safe. For a Category 1 hurricane you only have to reach Zone 2 or higher. You do not have to drive to the middle of the state, and remember that people who fled to Orlando from Tampa during Charley wound up smacked by the hurricane.
And don't leave if you don't have to
A large portion of the people who hit the road in an evacuation don't live in an evacuation zone and have a home that's safe. They aren't ordered to evacuate, yet they still flee, taking up space on roads, and in shelters or hotels.
If you live out of an area evacuated and your home can withstand a hurricane winds, stay there unless there is a compelling need to leave, such as a medical condition.
Know where to go
There is plenty of time now to decide where you'll go for a storm. The homes of friends or relatives inland are a good choice. Some churches and organizations have networks of members who will offer refuge. If you prefer a hotel, try to make arrangements early, especially if you have pets. If you plan to use a shelter, drive there a time or two so you know the way and by different routes.
Shelters aren't the Ritz
Though counties have enough shelter space except a few cases in the most severe storms, officials still say you should view them as a lifeboat, not a top choice. You will have little floor space, no privacy, peanut-butter-and-jelly type food and be locked in until the storm passes.
You will have to bring your bedding and quiet forms of amusement for possibly hours without electricity, likely spent in the hallway of a school where many shelters are based. Officials try to avoid shelters in buildings with a large roof such as gyms or auditoriums.
You won't go home right away
Naturally you'll be anxious to return home to check on damage once the storm passes, but don't expect to. Emergency officials won't let anyone in until they deem the area safe. That means downed power lines cleared, no flooding, roads cleaned of debris and the area checked for casualties and survivors.
Depending on the storm, this could take days.
You might only be allowed in for a brief time and will have to provide identification to return to an evacuated area. People who don't live in those areas won't be let in.