Sunday, June 05, 2005

Shelter problems of 2004 prompt changes

Source: Hernando Today

Last year's hurricane season was not without difficulties for some Hernando County residents who sought shelter at county schools.

Some evacuees praised the shelter experience last year. Others, particularly toward the end of the storm season, complained of poor food, scarce water and hostile treatment from shelter managers.

When Tropical Storm Jeanne rolled through Hernando, officials closed the Hernando High School gymnasium shelter well before the evacuation order had expired or the storm had passed -- an embarrassing episode that county and school officials blamed on miscommunication.

"We don't want to have the same problems," said school district safety specialist Mario Littman. "We had a communication breakdown last year, and it wasn't just in the school system. It was county-wide."

Preventing a similar incident prompted emergency management and school officials to resurrect hurricane training for school administrators, something that was in place in 2003, but never occurred last year. School officials also say new procedures for keeping track of evacuees who arrive at shelters and a reorganized chain-of-command should prevent the mishaps of 2004 from reoccurring.

Among the problems cited in explaining the decision to close the Hernando High gymnasium during Tropical Storm Jeanne was an inaccurately low count of how many remained at the shelter at the time.

School officials also blamed miscommunication with American Red Cross volunteers, who managed each shelter site last year.

This year, school principals and administrators will serve as shelter managers this year in place of American Red Cross volunteers, whose leadership skills and, in some cases, training proved inadequate last year, said Barry Crowley, the school district's safety and security coordinator.

"[Principals] run the schools every day," said Barry Crowley, the school district's safety and security specialist. "They're used to administrating."

The county's emergency management director, Tom Leto, agreed with the logic and the decision.

"The one significant change is that the school board is in charge of the schools. That will help us get accurate and timely information to the Emergency Operations Center," Leto said. "[School administrators] know the school better than anyone else. They understand the school. They understand how it works."

American Red Cross volunteers will still assist, but only in advisory roles, Crowley said.

This year will also bring change in how the county's shelters operate. Among them:

- Evacuees will have contact information logged into a computer database as they arrive at shelter locations. This will enable officials to maintain accurate rosters at each site and to check arrivals' names against crime and sex offender databases. Those considered potentially dangerous would be separated from other evacuees and monitored by police, officials said.
- Numbered bracelets will be distributed to identify evacuees. Each bracelet will be colored either green for adults or red for families with children to better ensure that kids do not get separated from their parents. Pets will not be allowed at the shelters.
- When a shelter closes, evacuees without automobiles will be transported by bus back to their homes. One members of the Community Emergency Response Team will ride along on buses and perform a basic check of a resident's homes to ensure it is habitable before leaving them.
- School food service officials will keep several days' worth of prepared meals on hand for evacuees, along with non-perishable backup food and military meals ready-to-eat (MREs). Last year, officials often found themselves scrambling to move food between sites, according to Littman.

Under the new chain-of-command for the county's shelters, Crowley will work out of the county's Emergency Operation Center [EOC] and report to both Leto, the county's emergency management director, and school superintendent Wendy Tellone.

From the EOC, Crowley will communicate with shelter managers and the various school district department heads -- including transportation, food services, maintenance and property directors -- all of whom will play a role in running the shelters.

But no amount of preparation can eliminate the unpredictability of a hurricane.

"Sheltering is not an exact science, it's kind of like organized chaos," Littman said. "We do the best we can."

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