County shelters can't withstand Cat 3 storm

Published 3:53 am Monday, June 12, 2006

By By Kerry Whipple-Bean
Hurricane Ivan struck Brewton with the intensity of a Category 2 storm, according to officials at the time – although residents and local emergency management officials believe wind speeds were even higher.
With hurricane season under way and strong storms expected again, Atmore could find itself in the path of another major hurricane this year or in the future.
But in Escambia County, no buildings used as shelters are rated safe to withstand a Category 3 or above hurricane.
That doesn't necessarily mean they wouldn't; it's just difficult to get an architect or engineer to rate a building and determine what windload it could withstand during a hurricane or other storm.
Getting buildings rated is also expensive, not just because of engineers' professional fees but because of the liability they assume in rating a structure they didn't build.
"An architect or engineer who did not have a hand in construction of a building is going to be very uncomfortable putting his stamp on windload (analysis)," said David Adams, the county's new emergency management director.
Adams, on the job just a few weeks, has already been in many meetings with county officials and other stakeholders in hurricane preparedness to determine the best plan for sheltering residents during a storm.
Finding funds to hire someone to evaluate buildings is a difficult proposition.
Mobile County recently received a $100,000 grant to pay for engineers to rate its hurricane shelters – and that money only paid for evaluation of about 10 buildings.
"And that's not even to shore them up," Escambia County Administrator Tony Sanks said. "That's just to rate them."
As a non-coastal county, Escambia County might have a harder time finding grant funding for the rating process, county officials said.
"I'm not aware of any funds available," Sanks said.
But Adams isn't ready to give up.
"We are addressing (the shelter issue)," Adams said. "It's a time-consuming process. We're not giving up yet."
The national Red Cross has approved the shelters the county has used in the past – W.S. Neal Middle School, Little Escambia Baptist Church in Flomaton, Escambia County High School and Brewton Elementary School – for use as shelters.
"We are just kind of assuming the schools are reasonably safe," local Red Cross director Rogene Martin said. "It's not Red Cross' responsibility to check out those buildings."
For a Category 1 or 2 hurricane, the shelters will open, Adams said. If the storm is upgraded to a Category 3, they will remain open. But if county officials already know a Category 3 is headed to Brewton, the shelters will not open.
Jefferson Davis Community College was on the state's new shelter plan, but officials are not sure how the facilities there might fit in with an overall evacuation plan.
Sanks said that because JDCC is in an area at risk for damage, the buildings might be used as a shelter after a storm, and then only for designated evacuees.
When to use shelters
Many different scenarios exist for the need to open hurricane shelters in Escambia County.
As a host-risk area, Brewton and surrounding communities might need to shelter coastal residents escaping a storm – and also might need to shelter local residents if the area takes a direct hit from a strong storm, as Brewton did during Ivan.
After a storm hits, longer-term facilities are sometimes needed to workers who come to clear streets or repair power lines in the area.
And, as many communities saw after Hurricane Katrina, a devastating storm of that magnitude could leave coastal residents in need of shelter for weeks, not just days.
"What frequently happens is that some of the volunteers will go in and work at the shelters," Sanks said.
Making the decision to open a shelter is a difficult one, county officials said.
"There's a fair amount of confusion on that issue," Sanks said, but what usually happens is that county EMA officials work with the Red Cross and the Department of Human Resources to determine how shelters will be opened and staffed.
Under the state's emergency management plan, DHR workers help staff shelters – but after a storm hits, those employees would be stretched thin if they work shelters, because they are also responding to other needs, such as food stamp and WIC requests.
An additional complication, Sanks said, is that Escambia County sits right above Escambia County, Fla. – and evacuees from the coast often head toward Brewton to find shelter.
County officials sometimes wait until later to open shelters so that spots will be available to local residents.
"It's not that we don't want to provide shelter," Sanks said. "If we're in a Category 3 hurricane, this is not the safest place for people to be."
Making the decision to open shelters and recommend evacuation is also tricky because storm paths can change.
"Those hurricanes don't move all that quickly," Sanks said, "but they can change direction very quickly."
Should you leave?
The county commission has discussed identifying some "shelters of last resort" – buildings Adams described as "the best we can find."
Each person entering would have to sign a release staying he or she felt safer there than at their house.
But should you evacuate if a hurricane is headed toward Brewton?
Adams said that's a difficult question to answer. "Each storm is different," he said.
Even a "mandatory evacuation" is wording only, Adams said. "You can't force someone to leave their house," he said.
But he said he would encourage anyone who lives in a mobile home or in low-lying, flood-prone areas to go to a shelter or evacuate the area in the event of any level of hurricane.
In any event, Adams is determined to be ready.
"We hope that by the time a storm hits we will have a firm plan in place," Adams said.

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