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Shelters lack backup power
Generators for 32 special needs sites may still not be ready for next hurricane season.
By DAVID DeCAMP, Times Staff Writer
Published December 12, 2007
Facing a shortage of hurricane shelter space for people with medical problems, Florida lawmakers set aside $52.8-million last year to buy big generators to power air conditioning and life-support equipment.
All 52 of the generators were to be installed by June 1 to meet the start of this year's hurricane season. But today, not one is up and running.
And at least 32 locations - including sites in Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas counties - most likely will not be ready when next year's hurricane season starts. Further, state emergency management officials say finishing the project will cost another $51.5-million, almost doubling the initial request.
"What an embarrassment it would have been had we been hit with a major storm with these generators sitting in a warehouse," state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said Tuesday.
Fasano, chairman of a Senate appropriations committee, will have a hearing Thursday in Tallahassee to seek answers from Florida's Division of Emergency Management.
Lawmakers allotted money for the program in the wake of multiple hurricanes that ravaged Florida in 2004 and 2005.
The money was to pay not only for installing the generators, but also the first tank of diesel fuel and maintenance for five years. Unlike standard shelters, all special-needs shelters must have backup power.
With $4.8-million from the bill, the state has helped pay for generators at nine locally managed projects that were already in the works, including the Sun Dome at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
In November 2006, the state began ordering the 52 generators, costing nearly $16-million, said Danny Kilcollins, the state's manager of shelter programs. But construction for the first site, a school in Leon County, started this September - well past the completion deadline for every project.
"We took every step to try to meet that deadline," Kilcollins said.
It appears the state underestimated the cost of installing the generators in hardened enclosures. For example, construction costs amount to $3.5-million of the nearly $4.5-million cost at Wiregrass High School in Pasco County.
Kilcollins said the state was able to get an accurate cost in only the past year as it worked with county officials to calculate construction costs. If Florida is hit by disaster, he said, the state can send out the generators from their storage location in Ocala.
Kilcollins said the state has only enough money remaining - $33-million - for generators at 16 locations, including Wiregrass in Pasco and Dunedin Middle School in Pinellas. If costs don't rise and saving are found, Kilcollins said, there might be roughly $3-million for a couple more locations.
The agency has also asked Gov. Charlie Crist to include $51.-5-million in the next budget to complete the remaining locations. But even if it's approved in a year in which the state is in a budget crisis, the money would not be available until July 1, a month after the start of hurricane season.
The fund shortfall miffed Fasano, because he said the Legislature set aside exactly the money the emergency management officials asked for.
"It's been a year and a half since the dollars were allocated, and we're just hearing about the problems now," Fasano said.
The generator projects delayed across Florida include Wesley Chapel High School in Pasco, Oak Grove Middle School in Pinellas and the Challenger school in Hernando County. Kilcollins said the state did the highest-priority locations first.
In Pasco County, the county has 1,100 spaces for more than 2,000 people on its special-needs registry, county emergency management director Jim Martin said. The project at Wiregrass will allow 600 more spaces using the largest single generator in the program.
But that means there will be a 300-space deficit without the state meeting its target to get the Wesley Chapel site operating.
The June 1 deadline to have all the generators installed "was probably ambitious, but certainly realistic," Martin said.