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As Hurricane Season Ends Lawmakers Prepare Legislative Response

Monroe County Board of County Commissioners

The 2017 Hurricane season is officially over. But lawmakers are still debating how to pick up the pieces.

Representative Jeanette Nuñez chairs the House Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness. The Miami Republican is especially concerned about emergency shelters, many of which are housed in public schools.

“In particular, vulnerable populations, how we deal with our special needs population I think is something we have to take a long, hard look at. The lack of training, the lack of appropriate insight as it relates to shelter management,” Nuñez said.

To begin with, three of the state’s 10 regions don’t have enough shelter space. More critically, eight regions aren’t adequately prepared to take on special needs residents. Pinellas County Emergency Management Director Sally Bishop says her county has been grappling with shelter deficits for years.

“So we have a deficit in our county of 580 spaces. But that’s at 10 square foot per person. That’s not the state standard of 20 square foot per person," she said. Because we’ve been in shelter deficit for as long as we’ve been a county, so in order to make room for everybody we have to shrink the size down to fit everybody into it. So if you imagine a 5 by 2 square on the floor that’s not a lot of space.”

The space shortage is partly because the state’s charter schools don’t have to serve as shelters the way public schools do, though both use tax dollars. Representative Janet Cruz has a bill that would change that.

Even so, shelters are often understaffed, says State Emergency Management Director Wesley Maul.

“Often times, communities voluntarily limit shelter space to match the available staffing resources,” Maul said.

Kurt Browning says nursing homes and assisted living facilities overburdened some shelters, and had no plan for residents after the storm. He’s the Pasco County Schools Superintendent, and oversaw shelters there.

“We also found that we had some home health care agencies or two that literally went around picking up their residents, dropping off at the nearest shelter and left. And often times at a non-special needs shelter,” Browning said.

Some of the worst tragedies took place at an assisted living facility that did not evacuate its residents. The rehabilitation center at Hollywood Hills lost power, and temperatures inside spiked. 14 died. Representative Jared Moskowitz pressed a state healthcare regulator for an explanation for the lack of oversight.

“We’re talking about there are all sorts of triggers and mechanisms. Is five people dying enough to be a trigger or mechanism that a license should be revoked? Is that a good analysis?” he asked.

The Hollywood Hills facility is in Senator Gary Farmer’s district. And he’s working on a bill that would beef up the state’s review process, and require facilities to have back-up generators and fuel.

“Where was the oversight over the general operations of this facility, and more particularly their emergency plan? Anybody can have an emergency plan on paper. We as a state need to ensure that these facilities have the supplies, equipment, personnel and wherewithal to carry out that plan,” Farmer said.

Lawmakers are considering other issues as well, including potential tax cuts for the state’s hard-hit farmers, rethinking evacuation routes, ensuring gas stations have enough fuel, and the power to operate. Also up for debate is the construction of affordable and temporary housing, and an emergency operations center for Monroe County.

Representative Jeanette Nuñez’s committee will meet again December 4th. She hopes to start vetting recommendations then.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.