Evacuation dos and don'ts: Plan ahead and follow orders

Evacuating in the face of a major storm is stressful, especially if you live in a coastal city with limited evacuation routes.

A recent traffic study highlights those limits, prompting emergency managers in beach cities to remind residents what to do - and what not to do - when evacuation orders are put into place.

The study by Streetlight Data shows Florida has a high number of small cities with evacuation challenges. In the Bay Area, the struggles were evident when Hurricane Irma came barreling toward Florida's west coast.

The bridges we use to drive to and from the beach are the same limited routes designated for evacuations.

In Pinellas County, officials say timing is key to keep down gridlock on the roadways.

"For each storm, depending upon the number of people that we're asking to evacuate, our evacuation could start anywhere from 17 hours before a storm arriving to 44 hours," said Cathie Perkins, the Pinellas County emergency management director.

Perkins said they work to move traffic along as much as they can.

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"We have our traffic monitoring system through public works, and we're looking at what is the congestion on the roads," said Perkins. "Can they make modifications to the timing of the lights to help move the traffic through?"

According to the study's interactive map, St. Pete Beach only has four exit routes for roughly 10,000 residents.

"We've seen a lot of development, and there's more development to come," said Jim Kilpatrick, the St. Pete Beach fire chief.

Kilpatrick remembers the orders to leave when Hurricane Irma came. It was a scramble for many, but having a plan goes a long way.

"I think we got lucky with some of the near-misses that we had. I think that created an awareness," said Kilpatrick.

If you are told to evacuate, emergency officials have a suggestion to help reduce road congestion: "We'd prefer for people to evacuate tens of miles not hundreds of miles because we don't want people to get stuck on roads. We want them to be able to get to a safe place," said Perkins.

Perkins said it's also important for people to only evacuate if they're told to do so, to prevent extra cars from being on the roads.

The most important takeaway is to be prepared before a storm comes.