Keys find new mainland hurricane shelter at Miami-Dade fairgrounds

Florida Keys residents who won't leave their pets when a hurricane evacuation is ordered now have a mainland shelter at the Miami-Dade County fairgrounds.

The large building also can accommodate several hundred people, pet owners or not, evacuating from Monroe County during a major storm.

"This building has been opened as a pet-friendly shelter in the past but no one [from the Keys] ever showed," Monroe County Emergency Management Director Irene Toner said.

On Wednesday in Marathon, Monroe County commissioners are expected to approve an agreement with Miami-Dade County and the managing company of the Miami-Dade County Fair and Expo Grounds for partial use of a huge, storm-hardened building on the site when needed for those fleeing a storm (hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30).

The pact would guarantee space at the E. Darwin Fuchs Pavilion, also known as the Sunshine Pavilion, for 350 people and 150 pets.

The warehouse-like building covering 49,000 square feet is used for fair exhibits and other events throughout the year. It offers bathrooms and a food-service area but few other amenities beyond walls designed to withstand 170 mph winds.

"We have never had more than 350 people going to the county shelter" at Florida International University, Toner said. "Even in that evacuation, more than half left to come home within a day."

For 20 years, Monroe County had the use of a student-activities center on the FIU campus to provide a safe shelter for people leaving the Keys during a hurricane evacuation.

When that agreement expired last spring, FIU administrators said it was time for Monroe County to look elsewhere.

The "university's student population has doubled from just over 20,000 students [in 1992] to approximately 50,000 today," FIU Senior Vice President Kenneth Jessell said last May.

"The Primera Casa building, where Monroe residents have been evacuated to in the past, today has very little resemblance to the building of 20 years ago," Jessell said. "Primera Casa has classrooms, administrative offices, faculty offices and labs that are used extensively seven days a week."

FIU's Recreation Center remains the relocation center for Monroe's special-needs patients, like those requiring regular medical attention.

But the university did not want to commit to taking in potentially large numbers of Monroe's "general population" evacuees, who might stay for several days in a worst-case scenario.

The pavilion at the fairgrounds, on Southwest 24th Street, has several notable advantages. It is very close to Monroe County's previous shelter at FIU, lies just off Florida's Turnpike and can accommodate hundreds of vehicles.

Monroe County emergency planners want to have a definite destination for up to 3,000 Keys residents if a major storm should threaten the islands. The county may have to seek several evacuation shelters rather than a single main one, Toner said.

Monroe County has not called a mandatory evacuation of residents since Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

In an extreme situation, Florida's governor can order state-owned buildings, like those on a university campus, to open their doors to storm evacuees. Toner said Miami-Dade officials, the fairgrounds managers and American Red Cross staff cooperated in a "highly commendable" manner to secure the pavilion as a shelter.

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