Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Sunday declared a state of emergency in 26 Florida counties, and expanded it on Monday to include nine more.
Shortly afterward, Walton County officials ordered a “mandatory” evacuation and Santa Rosa County ordered a “voluntary” one for parts of their respective territories.
Okaloosa County officials called for “an evacuation” for all properties south of U.S. Highway 98 as well as all low-lying and coastal areas.
But Florida statutes do not provide a mechanism to enforce any type of evacuation, Okaloosa County Commission Chairman Graham Fountain said Tuesday.
A mandatory evacuation is “not a legal term. We want to be very careful not to say something that’s not provided under the law,” said Fountain, who once served as undersheriff to former Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Gilbert and as a member of the U.S. Department of Justice and Florida Homeland Security advisory councils.
According to the Associated Press, only California, New York and North Carolina have laws in place to enforce mandatory evacuations, with violators facing misdemeanor charges.
Under Florida law, the governor may “direct and compel the evacuation of all or part of the population from any stricken or threatened area within the state if she or he deems this action necessary for the preservation of life or other emergency mitigation, response or recovery.”
“He’ll compel it, but you can’t send somebody out to arrest (those who don’t comply) or drag them out of their residence,” Fountain said. “If someone decides to hunker down and stay, there is no enforcement provision. It’s more of an honor system.”
Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson said that while his county has no intention of forcibly removing anyone from their homes, the word “mandatory” projects a necessary sense of urgency.
“We want to eliminate any doubt there should be no choice. It’s similar to a non-criminal summons that says ‘you're expected to leave,’ ” Adkinson said. “We’re trying to make it clear that there’s a big difference between what you can do and what you should do. It’s a terse warning of what is fixing to happen. There’s a pretty good-sized storm coming our way.”
Adkinson said a voluntary evacuation notice doesn’t carry the same weight for people that a mandatory order does.
“If you say voluntary, people will think you’re not serious about it,” he said. “If you tell people ‘this is voluntary’ they’ll tell you later ‘you should have told me it was mandatory.’ ”
Fountain said Okaloosa County officials “trust our citizens and our visitors to know that when we order (an evacuation), they should leave and take it upon themselves to protect their families.”
He added that people who decide to stay home during the hurricane run the risk of first-responders not being able to help them if the storm becomes too dangerous.
Daily News reporter Tom McLaughlin contributed to this report.