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Columns

For some, still no safe place in a storm

By HOWARD TROXLER
Published April 3, 2007


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The term "retarded" has given way in our society to "developmentally disabled." But by any name, Florida has a problem.

Many of the most severely disabled among us still have no safe place to go in a hurricane.

You would think we would have figured this out by now, but we haven't. Neither our shelters for the general population nor special shelters for medical or other needs can handle the unique demands.

"We're talking about people who sometimes throw chairs," explains Linda Klehammer, chief development officer for PARC, founded in 1953 as the Pinellas Association for Retarded Children. "We're talking about people who need diaper changes. We have to have people to take care of them."

Klehammer said there are 387,000 statewide who fit the category of developmentally disabled, and of those, about 90,000 severely so.

I talked with Candy Baur of Pinellas Park, whose 36-year-old son, John, is a resident at PARC's campus on Tyrone Boulevard in St. Petersburg. John has suffered from cerebral palsy and epilepsy since the age of 2.

What has Baur's family done about John when hurricanes have threatened our area? She said they've had no choice but to leave him at PARC, though the building can't handle a Katrina.

"If we brought John home with us and he went into severe seizures," she says, "who's going to come out in the middle of the hurricane? What we've done is left him at PARC and hoped for the best."

Some live in private homes or other facilities, but still might be helpless in a crisis. Klehammer says that when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, at least 17 developmentally disabled people died; some drowned alone in bewilderment.

So here's the plan.

PARC wants to buy and operate a hurricane-hardened building adjacent to its existing campus as a shelter for up to 1,000 preregistered people from west-central Florida. It would be the first such facility.

PARC would pay for staffing and operating the shelter, using its fleet of vans to bring evacuees there. There's just the $8.5-million cost of buying and retrofitting the building.

Several Tampa Bay legislators, including state Sens. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, and Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and state Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, are trying to get that money into the state budget.

The idea has the virtue of being a one-time expense, which fits nicely with the Legislature's philosophy of how to spend "nonrecurring" tax dollars. But as always, the competition is fierce.

One advocate of PARC's proposal was the late Gary Vickers, the emergency management director of Pinellas County, who died tragically in March after an automobile accident. Vickers was one of the original presenters of PARC's proposal to the local legislative delegation.

We have paid other tributes to his memory, but it seems to me this would be a fine addition to his legacy.

- - -

Some of the current topics on TroxBlog are how the Legislature wants to "bigfoot" local government on wetlands and mining rules, and a pointed debate over PSTA bus service. Check out TroxBlog via the "Blogs" link on www.tampabay.com, or at the Web address blogs.tampabay.com/troxler.

[Last modified April 2, 2007, 21:20:17]


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