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Fla. Lacks Hurricane Shelter Space

April 27, 2002

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ If a major hurricane hits Florida, all but a handful of the state’s counties won’t have enough shelter space in wind-resistant public buildings to handle the number of people who seek it, a study says.

Sixty of the state’s 67 counties have shortages of space in shelters built to withstand Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, which have winds of more than 130 mph, according to a study by the state’s Division of Emergency Management.

In some of the state’s most heavily populated counties, more than 100,000 people might have to hole up in a building not designed to withstand the storm or leave the area to find shelter.

Many local emergency officials say the state dramatically overstates how many shelter spaces are needed. Even so, many also acknowledge they don’t have enough shelters.

``We know if it’s a bad Category 4 or Category 5 coming in, we’re toast,″ said John Wilson, Lee County’s emergency management director.

Since 1900, Florida has been hit by seven hurricanes that were Category 4 or 5. There has been just one in the past 40 years _ Hurricane Andrew, which had sustained winds of up to 145 mph when it made landfall south of Miami in 1992.

According to the state study, South Florida’s Broward County has the most dramatic shelter shortage, with nearly 170,000 fewer spaces than it will need if a big hurricane hits. Hillsborough, Pinellas and Lee counties, on the Gulf Coast, each has a shortage of about 100,000 spaces.

Hillsborough officials say they believe their county is only about 75,000 spaces short. And officials in Broward’s biggest city, Fort Lauderdale, say they have plenty of space for everyone who would have to evacuate in all but the biggest storms.

Many local officials say the state overestimates how many people would actually seek public shelter _ a number put at anywhere from 15 percent to 50 percent of residents in evacuated areas.

County officials point to Hurricane Floyd, a huge storm that threatened the Atlantic coast in 1999 but never made landfall in Florida. More than 2 million people evacuated coastal areas but only 87,000 of them _ less than 5 percent _ stayed in shelters.

Still, state officials say they prefer counties to be overprepared rather than underprepared.

In Lee County, which includes Fort Myers, Wilson still comes up 38,000 spaces short of what he thinks he would need, even counting some buildings that can’t stand up to the strongest storms.

``Those people are probably going to have to go find shelter somewhere else, either in a hotel or motel, which we have very few of inland, find it at a friend’s or relative’s, or they’re going to have to leave the area,″ he said.

The story is worse just north in Charlotte County, which the state estimates needs shelter space for 28,174 people. The county currently has no hurricane shelters.

The plan for any major hurricane, according to Charlotte emergency director Wayne Sallade: ``We’ve got to move people out.″

But in many of Florida’s fast-growing coastal communities, fleeing is just as problematic as not having a place to stay. Evacuees clog the roads, creating the danger that people will be trapped in their vehicles when the hurricane hits.

In Lee County, ``95 percent of the population has to leave the county and it’s going to take them 35 hours to do it,″ said Dan Trescott of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council.

Trescott said people won’t leave that far ahead of a storm. ``This is why shelter is important,″ he said.

State and local officials said the shelter situation is better than it was a few years ago. Many newer schools qualify as shelters, having been built to withstand even the stiffest winds.

For years, the only considerations for shelters were a building’s size and whether it was susceptible to flooding. Most people who die in hurricanes are killed by flood waters.

Officials changed their thinking following Hurricane Andrew. The storm’s winds flattened many buildings _ including at least one listed as a shelter, although it wasn’t being used at the time.

In Hillsborough County, officials have spent the last year and a half reinforcing buildings and adding shutters and shatterproof glass.

Some communities have built bunker-like buildings. A Fort Myers retirement community built a new parking garage to withstand a 156 mph hurricane so it can double as a shelter.

Still, officials in Lee County admit they use other shelters that may not stand up to the 156 mph winds of a Category 5 hurricane.

``What are the chances of that happening?″ Wilson asked.

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