Sarasota County does not have enough hurricane shelters, the County Commission learns

Emergency Management staff continues to seek out potential locations, including private property

The Bolivar Peninsula in Texas was devastated by storm surge from Hurricane Ike in 2008. Image from NOAA
The Bolivar Peninsula in Texas was devastated by storm surge from Hurricane Ike in 2008. Image from NOAA

Sarasota County does not have a sufficient number of hurricane shelters to handle all the people who might have to evacuate their homes in advance of a storm strike, the County Commission has learned.

The matter arose during the June 8 public hearing on the county’s revised Comprehensive Plan. Rich Collins, director of emergency services for the county, noted it during his comments regarding the new Coastal Disaster Management section of the plan, which deals with such matters.

That deficit, Collins explained, is a result of the slowdown in construction of new schools and other hardened buildings in the community.

Commissioner Charles Hines questioned Collins about the statement, noting that the Sarasota County School District has rebuilt Booker High School and Riverview High School in Sarasota in recent years — as well as Venice High School — and new construction is underway at Sarasota High School. Given all of that, Hines asked, “We’re still short?”

(Commissioner Christine Robinson interjected that the county had contributed funding to make certain the rebuilding projects included shelters.)

Collins deferred to Ed McCrane, the county’s emergency management chief, who explained, “Charlotte County has no shelters at all that they can utilize because of their low elevation. The Red Cross will not staff them. They call them ‘refuges of last resort.’”

Therefore, McCrane continued, if people have to evacuate, Sarasota County staff has to anticipate those residents coming into South County, “where we have a lot of shelter space.”

A graphic shows the county's hurricane evacuation zones.
A graphic shows the county’s hurricane evacuation zones.

However, he pointed out, the rebuilt Venice High School could not be used for a hurricane shelter because it is on the island of Venice. That project was granted an exemption for shelter purposes “for the majority of storms” because of its location, he added. Housing people there would be a risk because of potential storm surge.

The introductory portion of the new Coastal Disaster Management chapter in the draft Comprehensive Plan notes, “Storm surge is related to the hurricane’s velocity, and can rise more than 30 feet above normal sea level, causing massive flooding and destruction along shorelines in its path.” The chapter adds, “The surge can reach shore up to 5 hours ahead of the storm, carrying a dome of water 100 miles wide and over 30 feet deep, in the most extreme circumstances.”

Referring to Venice High, McCrane told the commissioners, “We could utilize it” if a weather alert called for “only a wind event,” without any indication of a storm surge.

Sarasota County Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane addresses the Sarasota County Commission. File photo
Sarasota County Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane addresses the Sarasota County Commission in 2012. File photo

McCrane reiterated his earlier point: “If everyone in the vulnerable areas of the county had to seek shelter, we could not accommodate them.” County staff members would have to ask representatives of Manatee and Hillsborough counties, for example, to allow Sarasota County residents to take shelter in those communities.

“We continue to look for private buildings, if possible, and government buildings that could be utilized,” McCrane added. “That’s a never-ending challenge for us …”

The draft of the revised Comprehensive Plan does point out, “Hotel, motel and condominium rooms provide another source of hurricane shelter space. Based on information supplied by [the] Sarasota County Tax Collector and Visit Sarasota County, the county Planning and Development Services Department has estimated that there are approximately 110 facilities with 8,602 hotel, motel, or condominium rooms in Sarasota County. Of these rooms, over 50 percent are located either on the shoreline or within Evacuation Zone A and cannot be utilized as hurricane shelter.”

When Hines asked whether McCrane and his staff are working with school district personnel about shelter space at the planned Suncoast Technical College in North Port — which will include a new county library to be utilized by the public and students — McCrane responded that they have met with school system representatives and Sarabeth Kalajian, the county’s director of libraries and historical resources. However, he continued, because of the nature of that new facility, it will have “very limited shelter capacity.”

Many of the rooms will be used for labs and computer work, he noted. “The design [for them and the library] encompasses a lot of glass that would make [the structure] vulnerable.” Furthermore, McCrane said, the college will be within a 100-year floodplain. “It could be isolated in a flood event.”

Hines thanked McCrane for the information. “I’m glad you are trying to find appropriate spaces,” Hines added.

Mobile home park changes

In a related matter, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck criticized the commissioners and staff on June 8 for the removal from the revised Comprehensive Plan the necessity for a developer creating a new mobile home park to include a community center that could be used as a hurricane shelter.

Sarasota County Emergency Services Director Rich Collins. Photo courtesy Sarasota County
Sarasota County Emergency Services Director Rich Collins. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

The current Environmental Policy 5.2.1 says, “New and existing manufactured home developments undergoing site changes, such as, but not limited to expansion, will establish on site sheltering for 100 percent of the development’s residents, provided the shelter meets certain locational criteria. Sarasota County Emergency Management shall review and approve the development plans for shelter facility design in accordance with American Red Cross 4496 Guidelines.”

When the commissioners asked Collins about that, he explained that many mobile home parks are in the two county evacuation zones that are most vulnerable to storm surge. Therefore, people would have to be evacuated from those areas, he pointed out.

Additionally, he said, if hardened facilities were required in new mobile home parks that were at higher elevations, providing services to residents staying at those locations would stretch county resources. “It makes more sense for them to be in a real shelter.”

Nonetheless, Collins continued, he and his staff are working on the potential for facilities in mobile home parks to be used for emergencies other than pending hurricane strikes. For example, such shelters could protect people from tornadoes, he said.