NAPLES — 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 accommodate her."
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 medically needy.
"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 and running."
• In Collier County, residents recounted fleeing to one shelter after another only to be turned away because they were full or unwilling to allow pets.
"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 training.
"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 supply.
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 Hurricane Irma."
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 performance."
Florida's future will be filled with practice for sheltering hurricane evacuees. Most of it, unfortunately, won't be a drill.
Staff writers Tracey McManus and Lisa Gartner and senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which includes information from WLRN. Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @AdamSmithTimes.