Should I stay or should I go? Make hurricane evacuation plans now -- before you need them

If emergency planning officials could get one message through to Floridians about hurricanes, it would be: Plan ahead -- long before a storm is approaching. 

Based on the experience from Hurricane Irma in September 2017, planning ahead not only will help keep you safer, it could mean fewer headaches before, during and after the storm blows through, and possibly less damage to your home.

“The most important message that we can tell people is to plan now,” says Preston Cook, Emergency Management Director for Hillsborough County. “It empowers you to have a plan in place before a hurricane is approaching.” Daina Shukis leaves a Lecanto hurricane shelter after evacuating during Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

The advice from Cook’s counterpart in Pinellas is exactly the same. David Halstead, interim Pinellas Emergency Management Director, stresses a three-step process:
  1. Connect to official county emergency planning information. There’s no shortage of helpful facts and tips. In fact, there’s so much to know and consider, it can be overwhelming. Get started early, before panic and confusion influences the process. A good place to start is to explore the hurricane planning websites for Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and download their guides.
  2. Assess your risk. This begins with knowing your evacuation zone and the structural safety of your home. See below for links and details.
  3. Plan and prepare. You’ll want to have essential supplies on hand to see you through before, during and after a storm, regardless of whether you’ll be evacuating or sheltering in place. Keep in mind there could be power outages and potential water supply issues that could extend after a storm, even if a hurricane only grazes the area.
To help you get ready, read on for some of the most important questions, guidance, links and phone numbers from Pinellas and Hillsborough county emergency planning officials.

Will I need to evacuate?

Your decision on evacuation should be based on your evacuation zone and the safety of your home’s structure. All residents of manufactured and mobile homes must evacuate, regardless of zone. 

While thousands of people in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties live in areas that are vulnerable to dangerous storm surge, there are also thousands who live on high enough ground where sheltering in place can be a safe option. 

How do I find out my evacuation zone?

Each county issues mandatory evacuation orders based on zone levels A-E to protect residents from deadly storm surge and flooding. If you live in an area without an assigned letter, that means it’s a non-evacuation area. When looking at evacuation maps, you’ll notice zones A-E are color-coded, with Zone A (red) being the first to evacuate and white designating non-evacuation areas. Cars pass by a Lecanto church the night before Hurricane Matthew made landfall in Florida in 2016.
  
Use your county’s online “find your zone” tool to look up your address or call your county emergency center if you don’t have internet access. Your zone is also printed on your county utility bill and your Truth In Millage (TRIM) estimated property taxes notice from the property appraiser. 

Here are the links and phone numbers for finding your zone:
  • Hillsborough County Evacuation Zones
    For help finding your zone, call 813-272-5900 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
  • Pinellas County Evacuation Zones
    Call 727-453-3150 for the 24-hour interactive service and key in your landline phone number without the area code to hear your evacuation zone. This doesn’t work for cell phone numbers. For help finding your zone, call 727-464-3800 Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. During an emergency activation call the Citizen Information Center at 727-464-4333.
What if you live in a mobile home or manufactured housing?

All residents living in mobile homes or manufactured housing must evacuate, even if their homes are located in a non-evacuation zone.

If you need to evacuate, where should you go?

The shorter distance traveled, the better. Think tens of miles instead of hundreds of miles for evacuation, advise both Pinellas and Hillsborough emergency officials. Non-evacuation areas can be as close as a few blocks away, and in many cases, you may need to go only a few miles. Ideally, you can find friends or family who you can stay with for the short time needed for an evacuation. The key is to plan ahead and know where you’re going in advance.

Street littered with branches and leaves in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Tampa in 2017.As Hurricane Irma and previous hurricanes have demonstrated, there are many advantages to evacuating close to home. Some Irma evacuees went to other parts of the state, only to find the storm had shifted, putting them in harm’s way. You will also avoid traffic jams, gas shortages, and uncertainty that comes with looking for accommodations along with thousands of others. Plus, you will avoid the crowds when it comes time to head home.

Should I go to a public emergency shelter?

Officials advise that public shelters are for people who must evacuate but don’t have another safe place to go. While public shelters are available to those who need them, they offer only the bare necessities of safe shelter and food. Many don’t have cots available for sleeping and people are advised to bring their own pillows and bedding.

“They’re a refuge of last resort. They should not be a person’s first option, as opposed to another location that may be more comfortable or suitable for them,” says Cook, adding that many evacuees can opt to stay with family or friends who live in a non-evacuation zone. 

Where can I find public shelter locations?

The county “find your zone” tools provide locations for public shelters. For a list of public shelters, you can also see these links: Pinellas and Hillsborough.

If I don’t live in an evacuation zone, how do I know if my home is safe for high winds?

A structure in a non-evacuation zone that is hardened to withstand high winds can provide safe shelter even from a Category 5 hurricane, which brings winds over 155 miles per hour, according to the Pinellas County All Hazards Preparedness Guide. The key to hardening a home against high winds is to focus on roof anchoring, entry and garage door bracing, and window strength or coverings. For guidance, see these home preparation steps and tips on strengthening your home at the Federal Alliance for Ann Harrison stands among wreckage left by the storm surge brought by Hurricane Hermine in 2016.Safe Homes (FLASH) and Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS).  

In general, homes built after Florida began enforcing a stricter statewide set of building codes in 2002 are required to provide greater protection from wind damage than those built in prior years. Homes built before 2002, however, can be retrofitted to meet the higher standards.  

If you’re not sure, emergency officials suggest residents can have a licensed inspector, engineer or contractor evaluate their home’s structure. Whatever you do, they say the time to check your home’s safety and add improvements is well before a storm is threatening the area.   

What if I live in a high-rise?

The higher the floor, the stronger the wind. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) recommends that high-rise residents sheltering in place stay on floors just above water or storm surge.

What hurricane supplies do I need?

City workers load up sandbags for residents in St. Pete in preparation for Hurricane Irma in 2017.Whether you’re evacuating or sheltering in place, officials urge residents to assemble their disaster kits in advance, before a storm is on its way, when store shelves may be empty of essential hurricane supplies like bottled water, ice and batteries. This Emergency Preparedness Kit offers quick checklists of what you need for basic supplies for family members and pets, as well as “go kits” for evacuating to the home of friends or family, a public shelter or special needs public shelter. Officials also advise making sure you have a good supply of any medications in advance. 

What if I have special health needs?

Residents with special needs must apply in advance to qualify for a special needs shelter managed by county emergency and the state health department. Officials caution residents with special needs and their caregivers against waiting until a storm is raging because it may become too dangerous for emergency personnel to respond.

“They don’t want to be waiting until the last minute and calling. We need to have them on the list so we can plan to assist them well before a storm,” warns Cook, adding that Hillsborough officials had to “cut off registration” as Hurricane Irma approached in 2017. He also stressed that residents’ needs must be evaluated to determine eligibility, as “a disability doesn’t necessarily qualify them.” 

Special needs shelters are temporary emergency facilities capable of providing care to residents whose medical condition may require electrical equipment, oxygen or dialysis, or those with physical, cognitive or medical conditions who may need professional medical assistance. While special needs shelters provide more care than general shelters, they don’t offer the level of care found in a medical facility. Residents who qualify for a special needs shelter will also be provided with transportation if needed.

To apply and register for special needs sheltering and/or transportation, complete and submit the registration form or call for information:What if I need to evacuate to a shelter but I don’t have transportation?

Both Pinellas and Hillsborough public transit agencies run special evacuation routes for people who need transportation to shelters. Officials urge residents to make plans before a storm is approaching by determining if they will need to evacuate and if so, to identify the bus stop and public shelter they would need to use. Follow these links for more transportation information in Pinellas and Hillsborough

Daina Shukis checks out of an animal-friendly shelter in Lecanto due to Hurricane Matthew.What about my pets?

If you will need to evacuate, your pets need to be part of your plan. While local counties have added pet shelters, the number of available spots is still limited, so plan ahead and consider multiple options. For pet preparedness tips and shelter locations click these links for Pinellas and Hillsborough

How do I know when an evacuation is ordered?

One of the best ways to keep updated on evacuations for any type of hazard is to sign up to receive your county’s emergency alerts via phone, text and/or email.Besides signing up for official alerts, emergency managers recommend residents use reliable news sources to stay informed about and approaching hurricane and its aftermath via radio, TV, online and mobile apps, and newspapers. While social media is playing an increasing role in emergency preparedness and communications, it’s best to focus on social sites hosted by government and established news media. Be wary of getting swept up in panic or misled about evacuation orders by posts shared by unofficial sources, even if they are from family and friends.

Here are some recommended news sources:
  • Visit Hillsborough County’s main website at and follow the county's posts on Facebook and Twitter
  • Visit Pinellas County’s main website at and follow on Facebook and Twitter, plus specific emergency preparedness news and updates at and real-time traffic updates.
  •  New for 2018, you can now download Ready Pinellas, Pinellas County’s free mobile app, via the Google Play or Apple app stores. The app provides quick access to useful information on preparedness planning, evacuation zone lookup, disaster kits and checklists for when a storm is approaching.
  • Sign on to the Nextdoor website for news and alerts in your neighborhood.
How can I help others?

If you live in a non-evacuation zone and your home has been hardened to withstand high winds, then one of the best ways you can help is to offer friends and family a safe place to evacuate.

“If you’re in a non-evacuation zone, reach out to family and friends in advance and offer up your home for shelter,” suggests Halstead, who has decades of experience in emergency response and planning. “People with pets don’t want to burden others. It really helps eliminate some of the awkwardness if you reach out and offer safe shelter.”

There are many other ways residents can help others in need before, during and after a hurricane. See [insert link] for more ideas about volunteering opportunities related to hurricanes and other emergencies.

Read more articles by Elizabeth Taylor.

Elizabeth Taylor is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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