Counties single out buildings to commandeer as storm refuges
Movie theaters and college auditoriums might be used.
By JOSE CARDENAS
Published September 28, 2005
What if a major hurricane were about to strike Tampa Bay, and traffic jams like those in Texas had locked up roads, interstates and bridges?
In a last-ditch effort to clear the highways, Hillsborough and Pinellas officials would direct evacuees to a series of "refuges of last resort."
The refuges are movie theaters, college auditoriums and other buildings along evacuation routes. Officials would commandeer them in the last couple of hours before winds began to batter the Tampa Bay area, and firefighters would break into them if needed.
They wouldn't be official shelters, which meet certain building standards and are stocked with food and water. Rather, they would provide a place where evacuees who had run out of time and options could get inside away from the wind - and hope for the best.
"It is absolutely the last resort at the 12th hour of the evacuation," said Gary Vickers, Pinellas County's emergency management director.
Hillsborough and Pinellas officials have planned for years to use the refuges if the need arose, but they don't publicize the locations. That's because they don't want people to go there first.
"They are places I don't want the general public showing up at," Hillsborough County emergency planner Steve Porter said. "These are simply buildings that have been looked at. ... We are attempting to put something between people and the wind. ... In southern Mississippi, there were cars being tossed around like straws."
Some owners of the buildings identified as refuges had no idea until this week that the county might use their facilities.
St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler said he didn't know until a Times reporter called him. Still, he said it was a minor issue because the college is working with county and federal officials on hurricane preparedness.
Pinellas County has not notified the owners of the refuges that their buildings could be broken into but would pay for damages, the county's Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan states.
The Pinellas list of refuges, which is being updated, includes three St. Petersburg College buildings, the Clearwater YMCA and movie theaters in Palm Harbor, Oldsmar, Pinellas Park, Largo, Seminole and St. Petersburg.
Hillsborough County has designated dozens of refuges near federal, state and county highways, Porter said.
Unlike in Texas, where officials ordered a massive evacuation because they feared the area would suffer the same destruction as New Orleans, an evacuation of everyone in Hillsborough is unlikely, Porter said.
He said the county has what it believes to be adequate evacuation plans. In a Category 5 hurricane, those plans would call for the evacuation of slightly more than 400,000 people.
Pinellas County would call for an evacuation of about half its population - more than 500,000 residents - in a Category 5 hurricane, Vickers said.
Both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have shelters supplied with food and water where people should go first.
In Pinellas County, which has only 70,000 of the 140,000 shelter spaces that officials estimate they would need, the refuges could come in handy. The refuges on the current list would have room for about 25,000 people.
In a hurricane, officials in Pinellas would issue an evacuation order about 24 hours before tropical storm-force winds were expected to arrive, Vickers said.
Four hours after that, officials would evaluate traffic flows across the bridges and the strength of winds. Another four to six hours later, officials would consider whether to shut the bridges and point the remaining traffic toward the refuges.
Law enforcement officials in the jurisdiction of each refuge would commandeer it and ask fire departments to break it open if it's closed, according to Pinellas County's Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan.
At least one officer would remain for security and provide a flashlight for people to go to the restroom when the power went out, the plan states.
The refuges generally are not in places that would flood during a hurricane, Vickers said. One refuge, the Woodlands Square 20 theater in Oldsmar, is in an area vulnerable to storm surge, but he said it would not be used in a hurricane stronger than Category 3.
The refuges don't meet the same architectural standards as shelters, but Vickers said the county tried to find the next safest buildings.
To meet the criteria as a public hurricane shelter, a building should have, among other things, reinforced concrete walls, hurricane straps that secure the roof to the walls, adequate coverings for the windows, inside bathrooms and food preparation facilities, Vickers said earlier this year. It should not have trees that could topple onto the building or a flat roof that could lift off in high winds.
Theaters, he said Tuesday, don't have windows that would break, but do have tall masonry walls.
"What we are looking at is, (do we) leave people on the road and possibly die or put them up somewhere?" Vickers said.
[Last modified September 28, 2005, 02:30:38]
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