As the release date nears for a new state report on hurricane shelter space, dictating where there are surpluses and needs for future shelter space, Manatee County officials say it’s likely the Tampa Bay region will have a deficit.
County commissioners participated in a hurricane shelter workshop Tuesday morning, learning about how shelters were used by both the public and employees during Hurricane Irma and discussed different considerations that need to be addressed before the next storm season starts.
Emergency management leaders expected there to be at most 4,000 evacuees arriving to shelters after they declared a mandatory evacuation for those who lived in Zone A. The reality saw more than six times the people, nearly filling all 25 of the county’s shelters, with just 5 percent of those who sheltered in Manatee County from out of town.
According to the 2016 Statewide Emergency Shelter Plan, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council that includes Manatee and five other counties has room for 15,000 more people. The Southwest Florida Region, which covers Sarasota to Collier, lacks nearly 122,000 spots.
“We could be looking at a regional deficit of shelter spaces for our region in addition to the shelter shortage from our neighbors to the south,” Emergency Management Chief Sherilyn Burris said.
Manatee County’s population has already surpassed the 2016 report’s expectations for 2021, and as the population grows, more hurdles come about.
“The increase in population, of course, puts more people in harm’s way, which means we’re going to have to shelter more people,” Burris said.
County planning official John Osborne said that the combination of increase of development in East Manatee and sea level rise will most likely have an effect on future evacuation maps.
“These storm surge maps will probably get more and more colorful as decades pass due to climate change,” Osborne said.
He added that there are sheltering needs for county employees, including critical staff who work on pre- and post-storm operations. The 26th Avenue Public Works complex and the emergency operations center are the only two essential shelters the county has for its employees, said property management director Charlie Bishop. Some employees found themselves at the Historic Courthouse and the Tax Collector’s Office during Hurricane Irma.
Osborne noted that some capital improvement projects could help turn places like the John Marble gym and the East Bradenton Park community space into public shelters, as well as dedicating certain spaces for employee sheltering.
“I’m still in PTSD mode thinking about the next one,” said Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, who manned the emergency operations center during Hurricane Irma, and also has been working to find answers for those who live in the Whitfield area and have been flooded several times, most recently during a no-name storm in August.
Commissioner Charles Smith also expressed concern that Manatee Memorial Hospital, which sits in evacuation Zone A, had to evacuate and suggested that there be a hospital to serve residents north of the Manatee River.
The county plans to hold a joint workshop with the School Board of Manatee County early next year to discuss creating an annual plan that would outline exactly who will man the shelters and various aspects of the operations. Osborne said this was especially important, since it appeared that the Red Cross had a smaller presence in the county during Irma.
“We need a definite strategy,” Osborne said.
Also discussed during Tuesday’s workshop:
▪ Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, discussed the pros and cons of keeping the Powel Crosley Estate gates open if the issue of north-south walking trail connectivity through the property comes about. In the nearly 20 years the estate has been operated by the county, Falcione said there has been no criminal activity or vandalism, and keeping the gates open could subject the property to such acts.