As Florida's storm shelter shortage worsens, state inspection errors may eliminate buildings that are perfectly safe.
In 1993, as Homestead recovered from Hurricane Andrew, the Legislature ordered a state agency to find shelter space for every at-risk citizen.
Florida already was short 155,000 spaces for people who might need shelter from a storm.
Seven years later, though the Department of Community Affairs is still at work training evaluators and inspecting shelters, the state has not added a single shelter space.
On the contrary, the shortage has grown to 1.5-million.
With just two weeks until the beginning of hurricane season, some coastal counties find themselves in desperate straits.
Hernando County has not one shelter. Pasco's space has been cut in half. Most of the deficit is thanks to the Department of Community Affairs.
Told by the Legislature to find safe shelters for every high-risk resident, DCA technicians and consultants have called building after building inadequate.
"Anything they inspect fails," said Pinellas emergency management director David Bilodeau. "It's pure accident if one passes."
That's not much of an exaggeration: DCA found that 95 percent of existing shelters were inadequate. But there is reason to believe the state findings are wrong.
+ In Pasco County, a DCA technician with an $80 metal finder rejected several shelters, saying they didn't have reinforcing steel in their walls, though blueprints showed they did. An engineer hired by the Times found plenty of steel.
+ Miami-Dade lost thousands of shelter spaces when DCA consultants overlooked roof drains in 14 buildings and flunked schools for having no window-protection _ even though the buildings had no windows. "Damn near every silly error you could make was made with us," said Erle Patterson, the county's emergency recovery coordinator.
+ State evaluators regularly reject older schools, saying they don't have adequate wall reinforcement. But professional engineers, including Herb Saffir, the South Florida expert who developed the Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane strength, told the Times that those old buildings might be structurally sound and easy to upgrade.
Today emergency management directors from throughout the state will gather in Tampa for the annual Governor's Hurricane Conference.
They'll fan through the Tampa Convention Center to attend workshops on a variety of storm-related subjects.
One issue affects nearly all topics:
After years of effort and millions of dollars, Florida faces the storm season with 1.8-million high-risk residents.
And safe shelter space for just 274,674 of them.
Judgment and common sense
About the same time the Legislature ordered DCA to find more shelters, the American Red Cross issued a four-page guideline for selecting buildings. It devoted six paragraphs to construction standards.
But rather than using structural engineers to assess potential shelters, as the Red Cross suggested, DCA created a thick manual so state-trained lay people could make the assessments.
"The Department of Community Affairs has turned this four-page Red Cross document into a 100-page document," said Chris Floyd, disaster services director for the Capital area chapter of the Red Cross.
Patterson, the Miami-Dade recovery coordinator who helped set up the state training program, calls it "the best in the country." But, he said, it has two weaknesses: Measuring hurricane survivability is "not a straightforward thing," and evaluating buildings requires judgment and common sense.
Evaluators often must rate a building's soundness without seeing its blueprints. Moreover, they're in a furious rush. "The pressure is on from the governor on down to get this thing going as fast as possible," Patterson said. ". . . I'm not saying they do shortcuts, but they don't spend the time on doing it that perhaps they need to spend."
In Pasco, state technicians spent 20 to 30 minutes at each of 18 campuses, checking 56 buildings. It took the Times engineer nine hours to examine just six buildings. In each case, he found that the state technician was wrong in his conclusions.
If the state inspectors err, Patterson said, they try to err on the side of caution.
"Hurricanes can kill you if you aren't in a safe building," he said. "That's a hell of an ethical responsibility."
Older buildings overlooked
There's more than safety at stake. There's money.
The Legislature this year set aside $18-million to retrofit schools and make them more stormworthy.
Federal grant money boosts the dollar pool to $38-million, according to Patterson.
Money won't go to any school that doesn't pass the DCA muster.
"I know which ones pass," said Bilodeau, the Pinellas official. ". . . All the ones we've nominated for retrofit are newer schools."
That's because it is harder to judge the stormworthiness of older schools, what with missing blueprints and different building code requirements. DCA officials acknowledge the agency just assumes older schools have inadequate steel reinforcement in their walls.
That isn't a reliable assumption, according to Jimmy Schilling, the engineer hired by the Times to hunt for steel in the Pasco schools. Schilling, who has served as an expert witness for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, said he would be surprised if schools built in the 1970s have inadequate reinforcement.
In any case, he said, strengths in other parts of the building may offset some weakness in the walls. "Until someone does a thorough evaluation of the entire structural assembly," he said, "you wouldn't be able to say yes or no."
Saffir, the hurricane expert, agrees.
"I wouldn't just in one fell swoop knock out every old building," Saffir said. "A lot of the older buildings are safer compared to some of the new buildings that were being constructed" before Hurricane Andrew.
"If the old building is more or less windowless, I certainly would at least analyze the thing and see whether you could use it as a shelter. . . . It just sounds ridiculous to omit all the old buildings. You have to exercise a modicum of reason."
A difficult position
DCA officials acknowledged that agency consultants made mistakes in Dade County. They said they couldn't comment on Schilling's findings in Pasco County.
They said their agency doesn't cut shelters from county lists, counties do. DCA assessments, they said, are intended to be used as starting points for counties to make their own judgments.
By identifying buildings that could fail in a hurricane, DCA leaders said they are being cautious.
"Are we really taking away shelter space or are we identifying buildings that won't perform well in a storm event?" asked Craig Fugate.
In any case, DCA said, counties are not obligated to close a shelter that has failed the state assessment.
In fact, Pinellas County has shelter space that's not shown on the state list. "If it doesn't pass the standard, that doesn't mean it's not a shelter," said Bilodeau, the Pinellas official. "They leave that up to the county to decide."
But the state assessments leave counties and the American Red Cross in a difficult position: Now armed with a government document saying a building is unsafe, some emergency management workers say they don't dare open it as a shelter.
"The government has said the shelter is non-compliant, so the Red Cross said, "We don't want to use it.' You can understand why in a society where everybody sues everybody," said Floyd.
Annette Doying, the interim emergency management officer in Hernando County, said she has an identical problem.
"The county does have the option of staffing the shelters with individuals other than the American Red Cross," she said. "But, for the same reason the Red Cross has, is it in the county's best interest to place individuals at potential risk when you have . . . documents that showed the weakness of that structure?"
Patterson, the Miami-Dade official, said it's up to county leaders to dispute the state findings, as he did.
But Patterson is a professional engineer with 30 years experience.
Schilling said he understands exactly why county officials with less technical expertise would hesitate to challenge the state's findings.
"If I weren't an engineer, I'd probably just have blind faith with the state," Schilling said. "I'd figure they're out there doing their job right and I wouldn't question them. You've got to put your faith in something."
To Floyd, the Tallahassee Red Cross official, that's the unintended consequence of the shelter survey system: In an effort to abide by the state directive to find "safe" shelters, DCA workers with an excess of caution have labeled what might be perfectly sound buildings as inadequate, thus dramatically reducing the number of available shelter spaces.
"I cannot begin . . . to state all of the good intentions and well-meaning . . . interpretations that went wrong," he said.