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Special needs? Register now

By Times Staff
Published April 17, 2005


When a hurricane threatens, people with special medical needs who have to evacuate will probably be most comfortable at the home of a relative or friend, assuming they can be appropriately cared for there.

But if the alternative is a special-needs shelter, now is a good time to register with your county Emergency Operations Center or other agency so workers can contact you and arrange evacuation at hurricane time.

Who typically goes to a special-needs shelter? "People who are too sick to go to a Red Cross shelter but not sick enough to go to a hospital," Hillsborough emergency coordinator Peter Dabrowski said.

That includes people on oxygen or kidney dialysis, those dependent on electric-powered life-support systems, people with severe asthma who must be in an air-conditioned space, and those with other conditions that limit their abilities and mobility.

Assuming that your medical needs can be met at the home of a relative or friend, that should be your first option, said Gary Vickers, emergency operations director for Pinellas. Shelters are "far from an ideal situation and they're not a trip to the Holiday Inn."

Each county handles special-needs shelters a little differently.

In Pinellas, for example, fire departments will screen you to determine your needs and how best to meet them, Vickers said. Fire departments provide evacuation to shelters for those who have no other way of getting out, but they are not a taxi service and cannot provide rides to the homes of friends or relatives.

In Pasco, residents can register by mail in advance with the county Office of Emergency Management. When an evacuation is called, county workers call those on the special-needs list and arrange to evacuate them. Those who are bedridden or on kidney dialysis will be taken to hospitals or nursing homes as arranged in advance by their physicians, senior clerk Lynn Baxter said.

In Hillsborough, the county Health Department operates the shelters. People can call the department or the Citizens Action Center for a registration form. About 5,000 people are currently registered, Dabrowski said.

When an evacuation is called, the county sends out vans, school buses with wheelchair lifts, Hartline buses or cabs to take people to special-needs shelters at the USF Sun Dome, Riverview High School, or Erwin Technical High School. Cots, meals, oxygen and medical personnel are provided. People who are on ventilators, require a hospital bed, or need one-on-one around-the-clock support should go to a hospital, Dabrowski said.

To find your county emergency operations center, check the phone book. Typically they are listed in the front near the evacuation maps and lists of shelters. Or check the blue county pages.