When it comes to hurricane evacuation, island residents’ most critical decision isn’t if, but when.

Charlotte, Lee and Sarasota counties can order evacuations for barrier islands with the approach of a Category 1 or stronger hurricane, usually within 24 hours of expected landfall.

That order can be issued 48 hours before anticipated landfall for Palm Island, which is accessible only by boat.

But ultimately, evacuation is a personal decision for each resident.

Timing is everything

The decision to stay or go is “not much different than it is for anyone else, except (islanders) have to leave earlier and their avenues for escape are more restricted,” Charlotte County Emergency Management Coordinator Jerry Mallet said. “Without question, they are going to be the first to be evacuated.”

So, islanders must be prepared.

“They have to have an evacuation plan and know when they need to go and where they are going,” Mallet said.

Responsibility for making that decision is clearly spelled out in the Thornton Key and Palm, Don Pedro, and Knight Islands community plan.

“It is important to note that island residents have chosen to live in a high-hazard area and must take individual responsibility for their decision and for the safety of themselves, their homes and their families,” a statement in the plan reads.

It is the jurisdictional county’s responsibility to notify residents of a mandatory evacuation.

Hurricane evacuation procedures have been outlined by the three primary island advisory groups — Manasota Key; Thornton Key/Palm/Don Pedro/Knight islands; and Gasparilla Island.

Be prepared for anything

Residents needs to stay informed about notifications, evacuations, re-entry, and power shortages.

Notification: Residents are encouraged to have a weather radio and stay abreast of a storm’s approach because evacuation alerts will be issued via radio and television.

Public service officials also will notify residents either by public address systems, phone or by going door-to-door.

Evacuation: An evacuation order is issued for the barrier islands for an anticipated Category 1 or stronger storm, usually approximately 24 hours before the expected landfall.

That order can be issued 48 hours ahead of time, in some cases.

On Thornton Key, it’s a good idea to leave when Charlotte County Fire and EMS officials at Station 10 start moving equipment off the island.

Routes: During an evacuation, all bridges — Tom Adams, Kosinski, Anne Merry, Boca Grande Causeway — become one way for eastbound traffic only.

No one will be allowed to come onto the islands.

Once off the islands, sheriff’s deputies will be stationed at pivotal intersections to direct traffic out of the area.

Once evacuation is ordered, drawbridges will be locked in place to accommodate vehicular traffic.

Don't miss the boat

Palm Island:  Private boats and Palm Island Transit’s ferry are the only ways on and off the island.

Because relatively few residents live on the island during summer’s hurricane season, Palm Island Transit maintains evacuations have “been orderly.”

But the key is to plan ahead — 48 hours ahead.

Charlotte and Lee county officials, as well as planners at the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, say there will be no special ferry assigned to the island to assist evacuation — even if one existed.

So, be prepared to wait since it takes more than 30 minutes for the small ferry to make a roundtrip.

Also, deteriorating wind and water conditions will, at some point, shut the ferry down.

If you hear a distinct signal tone from the Station 10 siren, the ferry has shut down — and you’ve missed the boat.

Re- entry: Manasota Key and Gasparilla Island have “phased re-entries.”

First-phase entry is by emergency officials to sweep for injuries, rescues, hazards, and assess damage.

Next in are utility company workers.

The third phase is an escorted entry with residents allowed to check on homes and retrieve valuables.

Entry requires valid identification such as a driver’s license, utility bill, tax bill or other papers that show name and address. Passes are issued to residents for future re-entry.

On Palm Island and other smaller keys, there is no re-entry plan. Residents return to their homes when the ferry starts running again or by private boat.

However, they are urged to wait until Charlotte County Fire and EMS officials have swept the islands. Mallet emphasizes the importance of presenting valid identification, noting the absence of these documents can be the difference between getting home quickly or waiting for hours, even days, to do so.

In case of an extended power outage on Manasota Key, generators at sewage lift stations can be fueled by propane.

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