BROOKSVILLE — The last few hurricane seasons have been quiet ones along the Nature Coast.
During the lull, Hernando County officials have been working on several fronts to improve the county's ability to cope with the inevitable doozy of a storm.
Experts predict that the 2010 hurricane season likely will be "active to extremely active," with eight to 14 hurricanes — three to seven of those major ones, with winds 111 mph or above. But when it comes to offering a safe haven in ugly conditions, Hernando County is more prepared than ever, said emergency management director Cecilia Patella.
One local school is coming on line as a pet-friendly shelter, while another school will now serve as a better special needs shelter.
The extra space comes at a good time, as changes to the county's evacuation maps are on the horizon.
With hurricane season officially starting Tuesday, here are three developments that will affect Hernando residents.
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Patella is scrambling to update Hernando's evacuation maps, as her counterparts are doing in other counties throughout Florida.
The changes are the result of new storm surge models by the National Hurricane Center in Miami. That data, collected by a plane affixed with new topography sensors, showed considerable differences in storm surge risk in Florida's coastal communities.
In Pinellas, some 50,000 parcels were moved to more vulnerable zones.
For the most part, Hernando won't be seeing major changes to its most vulnerable zones, Patella said. The bulk of the amendments are to zones that would be evacuated in Category 4 or 5 storms, she said.
One important note: Zones A/B and D/E will now be separated into four zones to align with the system used by the rest of the state.
Zones D and E tend to straddle U.S. 19 and are evacuated because low elevations leave those areas vulnerable to the storm surge and flooding during the most powerful storms. The eastern boundary lines of the zones have moved to the east toward — but not up to — Mariner Boulevard, Patella said.
According to the new data, "there's a bigger area that could flood in a Category 5, and we've redrawn the boundary line to stay true to that model," she said.
Patella is slated to present the updated maps to the County Commission on Tuesday. The maps should be posted by then on the emergency management website. An interactive feature is planned so property owners can pinpoint their parcel and its corresponding evacuation zone.
The new zones do not affect property insurance rates. Evacuation levels pertain to storm surge from hurricanes and have nothing to do with flood zones and flood insurance.
Parrott Middle set to be pet-friendly shelter
After years of planning and delays, the county's first pet-friendly shelter is ready.
The county and School Board used $120,000 in grant money to retrofit Parrott Middle School in Brooksville with beefier doors and window screens so pet owners can bring their cats and dogs and ride out the storm together. Because of a lack of staff, no drop-offs will be allowed, and the county is looking for volunteers to help at the shelter, Patella said.
It will be well worth the effort, said Jean Rags, the county's director of health and human services.
During past busy storm seasons, officials encountered many residents who ignored evacuation orders so they didn't have to leave their pets.
"So they stay in areas that aren't safe for them to stay in," Rags said.
There is a preregistration system through the county's Animal Services department to help match owners with their animals. Preregistration won't guarantee a spot at the shelter, but it will expedite processing upon arrival ahead of a threatening storm, Patella said.
Caged pets will be sheltered in one wing of the school while owners sleep in another, but there will generally be free access between the two, Patella said.
With thousands of pets countywide, Hernando officials say the shelter should be considered a last resort, and owners are urged to make alternate shelter arrangements with a friend, relative or commercial kennel outside the evacuation zone to shelter pets during an evacuation.
No exotic pets will be allowed.
Challenger K-8 offers special needs shelter
As students at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics studied in recent weeks, workers outside scrambled to install a massive generator that will give Hernando unprecedented capability to care for some of its most vulnerable residents.
The county and school district used $2 million in state money to purchase and install the generator, which will power the school's lights, air conditioning and electrical outlets — all the crucial components for a special needs shelter.
The school, at 13400 Elgin Blvd. in Spring Hill, will offer space for some 2,000 medically needy evacuees and their caregivers, making it the county's primary special needs shelter starting this hurricane season, Patella said.
Up until now, West Hernando Middle School, west of Brooksville, has served as the primary special needs shelter. It has a generator large enough to provide air conditioning, lighting and outlet power for several hundred evacuees. But because of the configuration of the campus, caregivers and their patients can be forced to stay in two separate buildings if conditions get crowded.
Challenger's cafeteria, gymnasium and large hallways are all under one roof and will be much more comfortable, Patella said.
"We're gaining so much more space," she said.
West Hernando will now be the secondary special needs shelter, activated if Challenger hits capacity, Patella said.
Those who think they may need the shelter are encouraged to register so information about medical needs is already on file in case of a storm.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or email@example.com.