Florida Keys considers changing storm evacuation policies

MIAMI — Twice last year, tens of thousands of visitors were ordered to leave the Florida Keys when far-off tropical storms threatened. Both Fay and Ike wound up as little more than blustery side-swipes.

This year, Monroe County may not be as quick to pull the evacuation trigger.

While they stress public safety remains top priority, the county's emergency management chief and top administrator are considering tweaking the long-standing policy of ordering visitors to pack up every time the Keys fall into the National Hurricane Center's dreaded "cone of uncertainty.''

Instead, they want to make that often-difficult call storm-by-storm, weighing not just the projected path but the potential severity of a strike to an island chain particularly vulnerable to damage from powerful storms.

''If we have the exact same year, the exact same storms coming from the same exact directions, this year we'd probably have one less evacuation,'' said Roman Gastesi Jr., Monroe's top administrator.

While impacts to the Keys' tourist-driven economy are a concern, Gastesi and Irene Toner, the county's director of emergency management, said they aren't the primary factors for rethinking the Keys' evacuation policies. They point to better forecasting, better communications with emergency managers in Miami-Dade and Broward and better construction codes in the Keys as safety buffers for residents and tourists that did not exist years ago.

''We're not saying we're not going to ask them to leave,'' Toner said. "What we're just saying is we may be more flexible. We will look at it a little closer before we make the final call to go.''

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