Florida’s emergency chief says SW Florida needs more hurricane shelters

Kevin Guthrie says more will be needed to be built as the state’s population continues to grow

By: - January 19, 2023 5:21 pm

LAKE CHARLES, LOUISIANA – AUGUST 27: A damaged home is seen after Hurricane Laura passed through the area on August 27, 2020 in Lake Charles, Louisiana . The hurricane hit with powerful winds causing extensive damage to the city. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Courtesy of the Louisiana Illuminator.

Florida’s emergency-management director warned lawmakers today that southwest Florida, the site of where Hurricane Ian laid a destructive path in late September, has a shortage of storm shelters.

“We do have a deficit of shelter space in southwest Florida,” Kevin Guthrie told lawmakers at a committee meeting Thursday in the Capitol.

Noting how Florida is now the fastest growing state in the country, Guthrie added that “we’re going to have to do a lot of shelter work in the future.” He said another issue to contend with is that schools now must be built to withstand hurricane force winds.

“I don’t want say it’s an unfunded mandate, but there are some fundings issues at the local school board level to comply with that,” Guthrie said, noting the costs of construction materials and the overall heightened level of inflation. “That’s going to be more and more difficult for school boards to comply with.”

On Sept. 28, Hurricane Ian made landfall near Cayo Costa in southwestern Florida just short of a Category 5 storm with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph, tying the record for the fifth-strongest hurricane on record to strike the U.S. It’s come at a cost of $112.9 billion, the third most costly hurricane on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Emily Lewis, the Deputy County Administrator for Charlotte County, said that all five shelters that were being used in her county collapsed during Ian, with the people in the shelters having to be evacuated. She explained that while schools are now being constructed to withstand hurricane strength winds, “we don’t have any new schools that have been built in Charlotte County.”

“What we have are schools that do not meet those enhanced hurricane protection standards and so when looking at rebuilding the school district, we’ll definitely need resources to harden most facilities because those are the only facilities that we have to use for shelters if we have to order evacuations,” Lewis told the House Select Committee on Hurricane Resiliency & Recovery.

It’s no surprise that there is a paucity of shelters in that region of the state. According to the state’s 2022 emergency shelter plan written by the Division of Emergency Management, Southwest Florida and South Florida “continue to have a deficit of General Population shelter space through 2027.” It also said that there were special needs shelter space deficits in the Apalachee, Central Florida and Southwest Florida regions that are projected to continue through 2027.

The report also said that Florida has 45 counties with sufficient capacity of general population hurricane evacuation shelter space, and 36 counties with sufficient capacity of special needs hurricane evacuation shelter space.

Later during the nearly three-hour committee meeting, Broward County Democrat Hillary Cassel said that she had learned that three of the shelters used by Charlotte County during Hurricane Ian were public schools and asked Lewis if the county was limited to using only county buildings as shelters as opposed to using private schools or buildings.

Lewis responded that there were no limitations, with the selection of such facilities coming down to location, elevation and whether they were hardened enough to withstand the potential weather impact.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.

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