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Officials discourage relying on shelters during storms

Go to a hotel. Stay with relatives. Call a friend. Take a vacation up north.

If all else fails — and only if all else fails — start thinking about evacuation shelters.

This is the message local emergency managers hope their communities understand before the big storm comes. Because if people think they'll be able to comfortably camp out at a shelter for a few days to ride out a hurricane, they're in for an awful surprise, Pinellas County's Tom Iovino said.

And there's another problem with too many people relying on public shelters as their evacuation plan: There simply isn't enough space for everyone.

Pinellas County, for example, has a population of nearly 1 million but space for only 73,000 people at 31 shelters. Hillsborough County has about twice that space for 1.2 million residents.

Iovino said he doesn't consider the amount of Pinellas shelter space to be inadequate, even though the county is considered one of the most vulnerable in the state to hurricane destruction.

"We could arrange to have a million spaces, but previous events have shown that only a small percentage use them," Iovino said. As Hurricane Elena threatened Tampa Bay in 1985, prompting what was then the county's largest evacuation, Pinellas shelters did not reach capacity. During Charley in 2004, only 8,000 people went to shelters. Neither hurricane hit the area.

Iovino hopes most residents didn't go to shelters because they had made plans to flee to higher ground, not hunker down at home and ride out the storm. There's no real way of knowing, he said, until Tampa Bay has to face the real thing.

"That's part of the reason we address this over and over, to get the word out," he said.

Emergency managers from around the area try to get the same message across at community meetings, libraries and schools, and through fire departments. The shelters are there for those who truly need them, they say. That means elderly people with nowhere else to go, or homeless people and mobile homes residents who can't stay with friends or family.

People who have other options but are thinking of shelters as their first choice need to know that they'll be cramped, hungry and miserable most of the time. They might get only two meals a day, and the meals might be granola bars and canned meat. They'll be crammed in lawn chairs in a five-foot space, not lounging in a comfy cot.

"Sometimes you have people that expect it to be the Ramada, with a mint on the pillow and everything," said Andrea Allen, special needs shelter coordinator for the Pinellas County health department.

Sometimes people don't think about it at all, Iovino said. All it takes is five minutes to call a friend, secure a guest spot with a family member or get some other plan in place.

Just in case.

"The sun's shining now," he said. "Now's a time to find an alternate place to stay."

Officials discourage relying on shelters during storms 05/21/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 1:11pm]

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