A regional hurricane shelter in Hudson could be open by August 2009 after federal regulators decided it doesn't have to be built to tougher, more expensive tornado and wind standards.
As long as the $7.5-million project gets under way this year, the shelter can be built without hardening it against the harshest tornados, assistant Pasco county administrator Dan Johnson said.
The minimum protection against storms winds should be 190 mph instead of the tougher 200 mph, though not down to 160 mph once planned.
"That's still significant and substantially higher. A brand new house in that area would require 120 mph (protections)," Johnson said.
While Pasco officials have to study the exact cost effects of the wind-speed ruling, Johnson said the significant relief comes from not having to meet tornado standards.
Florida shelters ordinarily are not designed to be used for tornadoes, which occur too swiftly to trigger evacuations. Only two of the harshest kind tornadoes have hit Florida since 1950, according to state emergency management officials. A large majority of fatal tornadoes have happened before hurricane season starts June 1.
However, federal rules created after Pasco planned the shelter required projects meet the more robust protections to use a federal grant. The higher standard could have added up to $4.2-million to the cost for the shelter at Arthur Engle Park. And worse, $1.1-million from a federal grant would have been revoked if Pasco did not comply.
In response this spring, Florida lawmakers added $2-million in the proposed state budget for the project to use lower standards.
But Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator David Paulison notified Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday that requirements would be waived for at least six Florida projects after complaints from the state.
Without the exemption, Florida would have trouble having enough money to reduce its deficit of shelter space, state officials said. Besides Pasco's potential loss, five other projects risked losing nearly $3-million in federal grants if they did not comply with the tougher rules.
State emergency response planners say Pasco has a shortage of 28,000 shelter beds — and there's a shortfall of 142,000 in Tampa Bay.
So Florida emergency management director Craig Fugate and state Sen. Mike Fasano pressed FEMA to give Florida a break, enlisting the state's Congress members, too.
However, the waiver isn't unlimited — it lasts only until new federal standards become official, expected later this year. Pasco's project has needs to be under construction within that time.
"That's why it's imperative now that Pasco County moves as quickly as possible to build the shelter," said Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
The other state projects that received the exemption include hardening a community center in Brandon and a recreation center in Wesley Chapel. But tight finances have caused county officials to shelve the Wesley Chapel project, Johnson said.
The Hudson shelter will normally house a health clinic for under-insured residents. The County Commission decided to name the building after Fasano.
Besides the cost for the project, the county also struggled to find a proper location. The first spot, Veterans Memorial Park, had to be nixed because it is in an evacuation zone. Then the county needed an extension from the state from its original May 2009 deadline to build the shelter.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.