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Disaster shelter would help special-needs residents

The facility would be tailored to people with certain medical needs. The building also would be sturdier than the schools now used as shelters.

Living in a soup bowl such as New Orleans gave Jaime Wesolowski a healthy dose of fear of floods and other natural disasters.

The chief executive officer at Oak Hill Hospital looks around Hernando County and sees a similar threat.

His concern is what happens after a disaster, especially to the infirm.

Wesolowski, who held a similar job at a hospital in New Orleans before moving to Hernando County, believes he has a solution: He wants to help build the county's first state-approved disaster shelter for residents with special medical needs.

Although the county uses schools as regular disaster shelters and has housed people with special needs at West Hernando Middle School in the past, this would be the first shelter completely outfitted specifically for residents with health problems.

The hospital has pledged $500,000 for a new building for Enrichment Centers Inc. of Hernando County on the hospital campus. If the hospital and the county can obtain an additional $1.3.-million in federal or state grants, they will be able to double the building's size, allowing it to serve as a disaster shelter for the medically needy.

"Those are the primary people that need to be in certified disaster shelters," Wesolowski said.

West Hernando Middle School doesn't have the sturdiness or readiness that the new enrichment center building would have, Wesolowski said.

"You can't have too many windows (in shelters)," he said. "All of our schools have that."

Wesolowski was turned down for one grant so far when the state Department of Community Affairs said no a few weeks ago to a request for $330,000, but he plans to turn to other state and federal agencies for help.

If successful, the hospital would build a 16,000-square-foot building that could could hold up to 300 people and provide services such as oxygen and medical attention. It would have a full kitchen and cafeteria, as well.

If the grants do not come through, Wesolowski said, the hospital will have to make a decision soon to proceed with a smaller enrichment center.

"Eventually we have to make a decision to build a building," he said. Enrichment Centers Inc. provides dancing, sewing, computer and other classes for seniors, who can also obtain free meals there. Construction on an enrichment center alone would take nine months. If it's to be used as a shelter, work would take an additional month, Wesolowski said.

"I don't want to make this a five-year process," he said. "We want to give it a chance. It's such a good opportunity for the county. I don't know what better place it could possibly be."

Bill Appleby, the county's emergency management officer, said the schools are safe shelters for residents during hurricanes or other weather disasters. But although the walls in the schools are reinforced, he agreed that the new shelter Wesolowski is proposing would be sturdier because the walls and ceilings would be tied together as a solid block of poured concrete.

"(The schools) meet all the criteria for the sheltering set out by the state and the Red Cross," Appleby said. "But to say this will be a stronger building with the enrichment center would be accurate."

A shelter next to a hospital would also be ideal for residents with health problems, he said.

"The special-needs citizens we have usually are less mobile and less able to travel long distances," he said.

Wesolowski wants to act before it's too late.

"Certainly I think we should have one. I think we should have several," Wesolowski said.

"I think in this situation, it will be a shame to have a hurricane or lose lives, and then everyone is very vocal about why we don't have one. Unfortunately, it will be too late."

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