After Hurricane Irma, many ask: How safe are
Article Courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times
September 27, 2017
Residents of the Naples Estates mobile home park
beamed and cheered when President Donald Trump and Gov. Rick Scott
strolled amid piles of shredded aluminum three days after Hurricane Irma
to buck up residents and hail the work of emergency responders. But
almost nobody had anything good to say about their emergency shelter
options prior to Irma's landfall.
"We had so many people turned away
from shelters because they were full — which is amazing
that could happen in the state of Florida," said Marla
Kibbe, a seafood market employee and mobile home park
resident who managed to find a condo for shelter and
brought four other women with her. "One woman was 95
years old, but she got turned away from a shelter
because she had a dog and they wouldn't let her in.
Another lady had medical needs and they couldn't
Scott and Trump cheerfully doled out sandwiches and
bananas, while a few yards away, disabled resident
Audrey LaCapruccia wondered what would have happened if
Irma hit Naples as a Category 5 hurricane, rather than
the Category 2 that tore her home's roof apart: "The
shelter situation was terrible. Do you know how many old
people could have died?"
Florida's patchwork of shelters failed repeatedly
during a storm that could have been much worse. Many of those who rode
out the storm in shelters were directed there by Scott and local
officials. Some shelters just weren't adequate to serve their sole
purpose of providing a safe haven. Witnesses spoke of several people
fainting in long lines, miscommunication and shortages of generators,
cots, sufficient food and properly trained managers. For instance:
• As Irma bore down on Miami-Dade, Red Cross volunteers "didn't show up"
to manage shelters, complained the county's superintendent, Alberto
Carvalho. Red Cross officials countered that Miami-Dade had only asked
it to manage eight shelters, not the 42 that had been opened.
• In Palm Beach, where county officials recently decided to stop relying
on the Red Cross to manage shelters, county employees complained of
being ill-equipped to run shelters that became, in some cases, "scenes
of violence and mayhem," the Palm Beach Post reported. One reporter
embedded at a shelter saw fights, and one evacuee had to be carried out
on a stretcher.
• In Alachua County, emergency management leaders publicly shamed
reluctant University of Florida officials into making available
facilities to shelter Irma evacuees.
• In St. Petersburg, school officials at the last minute had to move
hundreds of evacuees after concluding some areas were not safe enough.
In north Pinellas County, employees risked their lives during the storm
to fix a generator that failed at a north county shelter for the
"I'm both proud of these men but also upset with them," County
Administrator Mark Woodard said with a smile. "Those three county
employees actually got into a vehicle, thankfully a very large, heavy
vehicle that would not be buffeted by the winds, and they actually put
themselves at risk in the storm to go and get those generators back up
• In Collier County, residents recounted fleeing to one shelter after
another only to be turned away because they were full or unwilling to
"It was very confusing, because they'd announce another shelter was
opening and then I'd find it full," said Stephen Kuolt, 63, who finally
gave up on shelters and hunkered in a friend's garage with Max, his
diabetic, 12-year-old cat.
• In Hillsborough County, several elderly evacuees at a special needs
shelter in Dover had to be moved to a hospital emergency room amid
concerns about their oxygen levels. Fifteen miles away at a
mosque-turned-shelter, volunteers frantically hunted for a backup
generator only to be told — erroneously, according to the Governor's
Office — that extra supplies were being delayed because state officials
had restricted access to southbound traffic into Florida.
To be sure, people across Florida have stories of extraordinary
kindness, commitment and sacrifice from volunteers and professionals who
helped open and staff a record 600-plus shelters to handle the
evacuation orders affecting more than 5.6 million Floridians.
Some disorder and confusion is to be expected when a massive, erratic
storm looms, and no one expects comfort at an evacuation center. A
shelter is a lifeboat, the saying goes, not a cruise ship.
That said, the widespread reports of snarls, disorganization, or
inexperienced shelter managers winging it with little guidance is
jarring for a state so susceptible to hurricanes.
University of Tampa assistant professor Ryan Cragun volunteered at the
Middleton High School shelter in Tampa on the Saturday before Irma hit
Florida and was stunned to see no cots, no blankets, no direction or
plan for volunteers registering evacuees. School district employees
worked hard to make roughly 500 evacuees comfortable, but the check-in
process was in "complete disarray" run by volunteers with little or no
"My takeaway is that we got really lucky. If Irma had been worse than it
was, things could have been really, really disastrous," Cragun said.
"The fact that we didn't have the stuff in place that we needed to have
in place and that we should have had in place, is really scary. It's
just mind-boggling. Come on, we live in Hurricane Alley, so we have to
have better planning than that."
Part of the difficulty preparing for and reacting to Irma stemmed from
Red Cross and other disaster response personnel being spread thin
between the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and sheer size of
Irma's "cone of uncertainty." It essentially covered the entire state.
"Nobody was prepared for that. Not at any level," said Dianna Van Horn,
a Red Cross spokeswoman based in North Florida.
Nobody expects the peninsula's vulnerability to catastrophic storms to
lessen as the coastal population continues growing, however. But the
many anecdotes of shelter shortcomings suggest that Florida has lost
ground in instilling the "culture of preparedness" that former Gov. Jeb
Bush stressed after eight hurricanes struck Florida in a 14-month
stretch in 2004 and 2005.
Gov. Scott this year signed into law a bill easing Florida's stringent,
post-Hurricane Andrew building codes to save construction costs, and the
Legislature has begun relaxing the tough building codes for schools that
double as emergency shelters.
State leaders are shifting more public money into privately run charter
schools that do not have to comply with hurricane-safe shelter standards
even as Florida's projected deficit in emergency shelter spots for the
medically needy has more than doubled, to more than 23,000, since Scott
became governor in 2011.
"As Florida's hurricane vulnerable population continues to grow, it is
vitally important that construction of hurricane evacuation shelters and
retrofitting of existing buildings be considered a priority," said a
2016 Division of Emergency Management report of the emergency shelter
That report said Florida has safe emergency shelter capacity for about
960,000 evacuees. At least 5.6 million Floridians were ordered to
evacuate during Irma, though only 5 percent to 10 percent of evacuees
typically go to public shelters, said Jay Baker, a professor emeritus at
Florida State University who studies public response to hurricanes.
Concerns about shelter problems with supplies, management and
miscommunication arose four months ago at the 2017 Governor's Hurricane
Conference in Palm Beach County. Scott's low-profile emergency
management director, Bryan Koon, declined requests for an interview
about Florida's hurricane readiness and supply of emergency shelters.
His office said shelters are the responsibility of local counties.
Asked if the governor thought Florida's emergency shelters worked well
during Irma, spokesman McKinley Lewis said Scott "is confident that the
state, in collaboration with our partners like the American Red Cross,
dedicated every available resource to support shelter operations in a
record of more than 600 shelters which opened throughout Florida for
The governor closed colleges and universities so their facilities could
serve as shelters, Lewis noted, waived weight and driver restrictions to
help more supply trucks reach communities, activated more than 7,000
Florida National Guardsmen and urged volunteers, including more than
1,000 nurses, to help in special needs shelters.
"Within the state Emergency Operations Center, Florida's emergency
management officials worked around the clock with the American Red Cross
and other organizations to coordinate shelter operations. This
coordination, based on real-time need, helped more than 600 shelters
open across the state, a record in Florida," Lewis said.
Dallas Jackson, a Pinellas County principal, said his main takeaway
after housing more than 1,500 people at John Hopkins Middle School, was
that more practice would help. At the last minute, officials there moved
about 300 evacuees after areas of the school were deemed insufficiently
sturdy for strong winds.
"Allocating the time for all of these agencies to come together,
especially when school is in session, is a monumental task but that's
something I would definitely advocate," said Jackson. "Practice dictates
Florida's future will be filled with practice for sheltering hurricane
evacuees. Most of it, unfortunately, won't be a drill.