Storm evacuations meant schools would become shelters

Austin Rayburn, 15, makes a jump on his BMX bike at Fossil Skate Park in St. Petersburg Tuesday. “This is pretty much where I come when I don’t have anything to do,” he said. Watching is Matt Mezei, 15, also a Dixie Hollins High student.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Austin Rayburn, 15, makes a jump on his BMX bike at Fossil Skate Park in St. Petersburg Tuesday. “This is pretty much where I come when I don’t have anything to do,” he said. Watching is Matt Mezei, 15, also a Dixie Hollins High student.

As Tropical Storm Fay inflicted little damage on Tuesday, the same question cropped up from Tallahassee to Tampa Bay: Did state and local officials overreact by closing schools and ordering evacuations?

"It's important for us to take it seriously. It's important for us to be prepared," Gov. Charlie Crist said, pointing out that Fay had left a trail of at least 14 deaths in Haiti before it threatened Florida.

As a result, state officials said that more than 30 school districts canceled classes, and about 1,200 people went to shelters across the state.

Officials throughout the bay area cited the unpredictable path of Hurricane Charley in 2004 and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina the following year as justification for a cautious approach.

"The bottom line is we will always err on the side of safety for the residents of this county," Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean said.

But some parents didn't see it that way.

"There's no reason the kids shouldn't be in school today," said Michelle Padilla.

Her 12-year-old son, Austin, was reading a book at his Carrollwood home instead of attending classes at Adams Middle School. Meanwhile, she said, her bosses at the Bank of America didn't alert her about whether to report to work until an early morning phone call Tuesday. She did not understand why school officials could not have done the same thing.

The problem, local officials say, is that schools double as evacuation shelters. After county leaders announced plans to evacuate low-lying areas, Hillsborough schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty said, "it was a foregone conclusion what our decision would be."

Turning a school into pet-friendly evacuation shelter can take six hours. Meanwhile, to alert parents about the decision, Hillsborough's automatic calling service took more than three hours to contact the families of all its nearly 200,000 students.

"There's a lot more than just saying 'School is closed tomorrow,' '' said Pasco superintendent Heather Fiorentino.

Once the schools close, that pushes other agencies to close too, Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne said. When schools are closed, he said, "it's unlikely that we're going to have employees coming in when they have a lot of children unsupervised at home."

Not every local government followed that line of thinking, though. In Largo, city facilities were open Tuesday and its staff reported for work.

Mayor Rick Baker said St. Petersburg officials waited until 5 p.m. Monday — well after the county and school district — before deciding to shut down Tuesday.

"When it gets close to you, you have to start acting as if it was going to hit," Baker said. "I really waited to the last time I could."

Reversing the shutdown Tuesday morning wasn't really an option, local officials said.

"At 5 a.m., you can't call schools and parents and say, 'Oh, by the way … ' " said Pinellas associate superintendent Michael Bessette. "We couldn't demobilize that fast."

Hindsight makes it easy to question those decisions, said Melisa Dean, whose daughter Lindsey attends Veterans Elementary in Wesley Chapel.

"If it would have come in, we all would have been saying, 'Dadgum it, they should have called it yesterday,' " Dean said. "Now that it didn't come in, we can say, 'Why didn't they wait?' "

With Fay predicted to strengthen once it reaches the Atlantic and then turn back toward the Jacksonville area, officials in North Florida and Georgia will contend with many of the same decisions.

To state emergency management director Craig Fugate, Fay actually worked out perfectly.

"When a storm hits, and nobody loses their home, and there's no damage,'' he said, "that's a good storm."

Times staff writers Bill Varian, Jamal Thalji, Mike Donila, Janet Zink, Jonathan Abel, Aaron Sharockman, Steve Nohlgren and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Storm evacuations meant schools would become shelters 08/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 8:47pm]

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