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Mission: Leave no one behind

Local emergency planners, trying to learn from Katrina and Rita, look for ways to reach and evacuate everyone, not just the ones with cars and hurricane kits.

By SUSAN ASCHOFF
Published October 3, 2005


Kristy Ruppell and her two boys evacuated ahead of hurricanes twice last year. They shut the cat in the bathroom, carted the microwave and the Nintendo to their rusted '86 Toyota, and abandoned their High Point apartment for refuge at her dad's house in St. Petersburg.

The Tampa Bay area was spared a direct hit, but four hurricanes slammed Florida. Ruppell need look no farther this year than her television screen and its images of splintered homes and body counts from Katrina and Rita to know how foolish it is to stay.

"It could happen to us, and we could have nothing," says the 27-year-old Ruppell.

Emergency planners say they are ready.

They have weighty binders marked by tabbed pages: Staged evacuations. Opening shelters. Dispatching buses to nursing homes. Positioning firefighters and road crews to ride out a storm, then swoop in afterward.

"We've benefited from at least three decades of disaster planning," says Gary Vickers, director of Pinellas County Emergency Management.

Still, there are people the best laid plan will miss. People who do not read newspapers or get cable television or surf the Internet. Residents who do not speak English. Others who don't have a car or enough money for a week's worth of canned goods and a package of batteries.

The bay area has not suffered a direct hit since 1921, when a Category 3 hurricane submerged parts of downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa and killed six. When a killer storm comes, there will be neighborhoods missed by the sheriff's cruisers with public address systems ordering evacuation. There will be too many people to fit in shelters.

There will be thousands who, despite an emergency plan that first holds individuals accountable for their own safety, will not be ready to save themselves.

No budget for disaster

Some of Ruppell's neighbors left and some stayed during last year's string of storms. WindTree Villas' 133 low- to moderate-income apartments are mostly in evacuation zones B and C.

"They were concerned," property manager Daisy Tavarez says. The management office closed. An on-site YMCA is not a designated shelter.

WindTree Villas is in High Point, an unincorporated area near St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. The community is a patchwork of houses, apartments, mobile homes, retailing and warehouses served by a patchwork of county and city service providers.

"High Point is a strange mix. We have everything from $300,000 houses built behind ICOT Center to Sun Terrace mobile homes worth a couple thousand bucks," says Margo Adams, executive director of the High Point Neighborhood Family Center. The center, one of nine in the county, assists 4,000 families a year. Many make less than $20,000.

Today a woman needs help getting her electricity back on after nonpayment. When Hurricane Frances damaged roofs, several families sought temporary housing. Clients come for sewing classes and after-school care. They arrive by car, bicycle and on foot.

"These are the people I'd worry about most" in a hurricane, Adams says. "Where would they go?"

Rose Alcala evacuated her duplex on Topaz Lane last year and went to her son's home in Dunedin, swapping a location near Old Tampa Bay for one blocks from the Gulf of Mexico.

"I don't know which evacuation zone I am. I don't even know where to go to a shelter," says Alcala, 56, who lives on disability payments. "When you are on a fixed income, you go with the things you know."

Some of her neighbors will not answer their doors to strangers. Others slip away when approached outside. Adams recalls a man who came to the center's food bank and, when handed a bag of groceries, removed a brownie mix, telling her he could not use any food that couldn't be cooked over an open fire.

Adams does not know how, when a hurricane threatens, you evacuate people who live in the woods.

Can you hear me now?

As wind and rain pelted the bay area ahead of an approaching Frances last September, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms, driving to an emergency meeting, saw a family carrying groceries and walking on the side of the road. She asked them in Spanish what they were doing outside in a hurricane. What hurricane, they said.

One-fifth of the people in the Tampa Bay area speak a language other than English at home, according to U.S. Census figures.

"We started thinking about how information (about hurricanes) is accessed in the Hispanic community," says Tony Morejon, the county's Hispanic affairs liaison.

He finds unorthodox ways to break through language and income barriers. He pays kids to stand on street corners holding signs about hurricane meetings. He piggybacks education sessions on well-attended health fairs. He goes to Wimauma and Plant City "to communicate where people are really disconnected from government."

Displaying poster-size photos of decimated trailers, he asks, "Do you believe you can survive a hurricane in your home? You have to have a plan."

In High Point, residents are white, African-American, Hispanic. There are immigrants from Bosnia, Croatia, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, Laos and Cambodia. Adams walks neighborhoods and stuffs fliers in doors, one-page missives about Easter egg hunts and infant nutrition. Children translate for parents. She would like to do a flier on hurricane preparedness, she says, but does not know what it should say. To raise questions without answers is counterproductive.

Vincent Salinas, who paves driveways, says he would ask his boss what to do. "I don't have a car," he says, scooping up his 2-year-old son, who wriggles to break loose and chase the tinny siren song of an ice cream truck.

Water, water everywhere

He has been in the disaster business for two decades. Yet as Hurricane Charley approached, Capt. R. Scott Stiner, the Pinellas County sheriff's preparedness coordinator, stood in line for six hours with everybody else to buy 15 sheets of plywood for his windows.

I should know better, he says.

Bay area residents have some water, a flashlight, a vague idea of where they'll go if ordered to evacuate. Most will be making panicked trips to the grocery store or phoning officials for a shelter address hours before a hurricane's arrival.

Page one of every preparedness plan puts responsibility on the individual. Edgardo Velez is ready. A truck driver, he lives in High Point with his wife and daughter. They are in evacuation zone C, but a drainage ditch behind his apartment floods, he says.

"A lot of people say they're going to stay here," Velez says. "You can tell people, "Here's the plan.' But are they going to follow it?"

He and his family each have a backpack filled with clothing and toiletries. He has a briefcase for important papers. In June, at the start of hurricane season, Velez stocks six cases of six 1-gallon water jugs.

The Tampa Bay Hurricane Guide published in May recommends a two-week supply of 1 gallon of water per person per day, or 56 gallons for a family of four. The same family is advised to have four flashlights and seven sets of batteries for each. The supplies checklist in the guide, minus major purchases such as a generator and fire extinguisher, still easily totals more than $200.

The working poor drive old cars and have no savings, Adams says.

Lizbeth Galarza moved here in March from the East Coast and lives with her 16-year-old brother Bruce and 13-year-old son Brandon. She says she has first aid kits in the house and car, 6 gallons of water and some canned food.

"Since this is my first time going through this," Galarza says, "I'm scared about it."

Wal-Mart had a sale on generators, she says, for $500.

"Five hundred dollars?"

Take me

After two weeks in Mississippi post-Katrina, Maj. Dan Simovich, speaking by cell phone as a caravan of 17 members of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office headed home, shared what he learned.

Run.

"I just spent a lot of money on hurricane shutters and a generator, but my family's going to leave" when a major hurricane comes here, Simovich says.

More than half of Pinellas County's 940,000 residents could be forced from their homes in a worst-case Category 5 storm. More than 480,000 would evacuate in Hillsborough County. Those who find a false sense of security in a home on higher ground would experience peeled-off roofs, shattered windows and flying debris, then weeks without power and water and daylong lines for gasoline and supplies.

In High Point, about 5 to 12 percent of households do not have a vehicle, according to data gathered by Pinellas County and the U.S. Census. The Greenwood neighborhood in Clearwater and portions of south St. Petersburg have as many as one-third of all households without transportation.

In Hillsborough County, the evacuation plan calls for residents to stand on the side of the road and flag HARTline buses to take them to a shelter.

"We've got to go through neighborhoods. We've got to physically pick people up who don't have a means of transportation," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said after an estimated 200,000 people, overwhelmingly poor, failed to evacuate New Orleans.

In Pinellas County, almost 1,000 Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and school buses are to be divvied up for evacuations from mobile home parks to nursing homes. Police, fire and sheriff's personnel will drive through neighborhoods announcing evacuations over public address systems.

Realistically, many will not understand why the authorities are there. Undocumented residents will scatter.

"We are not going to go door to door and tell them a storm's coming," says Robert Ballou, chief of emergency management for St. Petersburg. "We realize not everyone will be as prepared as we like."

As a rule, shelters in the county should have enough space for 25 percent of those evacuated, or about 150,000 people in Pinellas. There is room for 70,000.

"The big concern is if we have a large-scale evacuation - where do you put everybody?" asks Largo Fire Department deputy chief Karry Bell. Largo provides fire service for High Point. One of the shelters for High Point residents is Largo High School. About 1,100 evacuees stayed there during Charley.

Conditions are not posh. Evacuees are lined up against hallway walls away from windows. There are no cots or blankets provided. The space is dark and threadbare.

Charley's shelter stay lasted a day. There was only one fight, says school principal-cum-shelter-manager Jeff Haynes, over a disputed patch of floor space. A police officer told one man "he could either stop freaking out or leave."

Lesser of evils

As Hurricane Charley approached, officials in Pinellas County assured residents there would be time to call for an evacuation as little as 10 hours before storm-force winds arrived.

As Hurricane Rita barreled toward the Texas coast 10 days ago, a man phoned a Tampa radio show from his car on Interstate 45, stuck in the massive traffic jam between Houston and Dallas. He left 36 hours ahead of Rita's scheduled arrival, he said, and was still going nowhere.

Evacuation is a success, experts insist, because people survive.

Simovich, the deputy who volunteered in Mississippi, says he remembers an elderly woman accompanied by her adult son. Her arm was bleeding. She clutched two china plates.

Her possessions were now refuse. She and her son were alive.

"It's all junk at the end," Simovich says. "It's people that matter."

- Susan Aschoff can be reached at 727 892-2293 or aschoff@sptimes.com