Days before Hurricane Irma hit, Manatee County commissioners were surprised to learn that the new North River High School would not be built as a hurricane shelter.
But unless the next state emergency shelter plan update in January says the region doesn’t have enough shelters, the school district doesn’t have to build it as such.
During a work session Tuesday morning, county infrastructure and strategic planning official John Osborne gave a detailed presentation on why that is, and why it’s a problem.
Ahead of Irma, county officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for those who live in Zone A and a voluntary evacuation order set for Zone B. More than 25,000 people evacuated to Manatee County’s 25 shelters, filling up 70 percent of the available space, Osborne said.
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“We found, too, that we’re most likely host-sheltering people from other places,” Osborne said. “We all know hurricanes typically come from the south and move north up the coastline.”
The 2016 Statewide Emergency Shelter Plan — which is used as a guideline for local governments and approved by the governor on Jan. 31 of every even-numbered year — lists the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, including Manatee County, as not having a general population shelter deficit.
According to the plan, in 2021, the six-county region would still have room for about 15,000 more people in shelters.
There are two problems with this, Osborne pointed out. One, the current population of Manatee County has already surpassed its population projection for 2021 that was used to calculate the latest shelter demands. Two, the plan states that the Tampa Bay area is sandwiched by two regions that have shelter deficits.
In the Central Florida region, which includes Polk and Desoto counties, there was a projected deficit of more than 15,000 shelter spaces in 2021. The Southwest Florida region, encompassing Sarasota through Collier counties, would lack eight times that amount.
Also, the plan states that every region except for South Florida lacks sufficient special needs shelters. The Tampa Bay region would need room for 721 patients in 2021, according to the plan.
During a county commission meeting on Sept. 7, it was estimated that hardening the North River High School would cost another $8 million to $10 million. Osborne noted that a Department of Education survey estimated the average cost to fortify a school to withstand a hurricane is $2.9 million.
“It’s a substantial cost when you look at ... building something new beyond what the code normally requires,” Osborne said.
County Attorney Mickey Palmer said that if the state does not see a need for shelters in the area but the county wants one anyway outside of the statute requirement, the county would have to pay.
“It’s expensive, but in the overall picture it’s not,” County Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac said.
Planning section manager Nicole Knapp said during Tuesday’s work session that school district staff indicated that the high school off of Erie Road and U.S. 301, along with the proposed north county elementary school and east county middle school, would not become hardened schools.
“That decision has not been made yet,” school district spokesman Mike Barber told the Bradenton Herald on Tuesday, noting that the district and county were still discussing options.
The hurricane shelter discussion transferred over into the school board workshop Tuesday afternoon.
The School District of Manatee County is in the process of building three new schools, and while the current building codes under which all three will be built will enable them to withstand hurricane force winds, they are not going to get “shelter” designations, Ron Ciranna, the district’s deputy superintendent of operations, told school board members during a workshop Monday.
Among many other details, a shelter school has extra plumbing, bigger parking lots and a hurricane command center headquarters inside the schools, Ciranna said.
The district didn’t build these three schools to shelter standards because there are 24 shelter schools in the district, enough to meet state guidelines, Ciranna said.
“It’s too late for the high school,” Ciranna said, explaining that the architectural plans are already set for North River High School to be made into a non-shelter. “It’s getting close for the middle school, but there is still time for the elementary school.”
But school board member Scott Hopes then turned to Ciranna and asked, “Can we still get a price tag from the architect?”
Presumably after Hurricane Irma, when 24 schools serving as shelters were essentially maxed out with evacuees, school board members are determined to ask state legislators for the extra money. Ciranna said it is seven to 10 percent more money to make the three new schools shelters.
Discussion on the shelter situation dominated the 3 p.m. school board workshop.
School board members discussed that while they were pleased that evacuees from surrounding counties without as many shelters could find shelter in Manatee, why shouldn’t the state of Florida assist Manatee in making its new schools shelters.
“Let’s make the state aware that we have a window of opportunity here in Manatee County, but we have to have the costs covered,” Hopes told his fellow board members. “Let’s go forward together, school board, county, Department of Health, to identify an opportunity.”
“At 9 a.m. Saturday before Irma hit Florida, after the governor’s press conference, Charlotte County had filled all of its shelters.”
School board member Dave “Watchdog” Miner wondered why schools were the only shelters in Manatee County.
State statute deems that public schools, state colleges and other facilities owned by the government should be used as shelters, but they have to meet certain requirements such as capacity, location and structure.
County commissioners said they wanted to draft a letter to outline their concerns about the need for more shelters and the lack of funding to do so, but it was unclear specifically to whom the letter would be addressed.
With the traffic headache on northbound highways before Irma and on southbound lanes after, Benac was convinced that the need for more shelter would be greater.
“I think people are going to be looking to shelter closer if they can with the next one,” she said.
Herald staff writer Richard Dymond contributed to this report.