Two weeks after Hurricane Irma plunged the county into darkness and disarray, Miami-Dade’s mayor promised more ice, more staff to open shelters, more refuges for pets and more focus on public housing preparations for the next major storm.
“All of these plans get rewritten after every event, because we learn new lessons,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said during a special County Commission meeting on Irma, before introducing a campaign-style video that his communications staff prepared touting the administration’s storm response. “By and large, I believe right now that the county did a fantastic job.”
Gimenez faced criticism for the county’s shelter logistics before Irma hit, and for the lack of aid for some low-income neighborhoods afterward. Miami-Dade found it did not have the staff needed to open more than 40 shelters as quickly as it wanted. It also grappled with a lack of ice for distribution and generator power to keep county-run senior housing out of crisis mode after Irma.
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Most of the county’s 43 shelters were in schools, and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told commissioners that Miami-Dade needed a better plan for telling the public where to go, having the staff on hand to run the facilities and what to do with people who show up at shelters that have been declared full. He also urged Miami-Dade to speed up the check-in procedure for people entering shelters.
“Streamlining the processes for evacuees is a must. I observed it personally,” Carvalho said. “The process of registration was often onerous, considering the masses of individuals converging on the sites.”
Gimenez expressed frustration at a county program that is supposed to dispatch Miami-Dade employees to staff emergency needs for storms, including at shelters. “We have a cadre of people who are trained. We will be training more,” he said. “I wasn’t as pleased with the response. For future hurricanes, it will be much more structured. It will be much more militaristic. It will not be ‘Please.’ It will be ordered.”
Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, whose district includes some of the Miami neighborhoods with the lowest incomes, said she felt the county was not ready to deal with the post-storm needs of poor residents without the means to store days’ worth of food ahead of time.
“My district has poverty,” she said. “City of Miami was out there giving out the ice and the water and the food. I had empty hands. I really felt bad that I had empty hands, and to see the lines of people who actually needed these things.”
Irma hit South Florida on a Sunday morning, Sept. 10, and Miami-Dade distributed its first batch of ice the following Wednesday, said Deputy Mayor Russell Benford. Florida provided the ice.
Gimenez said the county needs agreements with reliable ice vendors in Miami-Dade capable of providing the high-demand product after a storm knocks out power across Miami-Dade. He also said he wants the county’s Housing division to toughen rules on county-subsidized and county-run elder complexes to make sure generators can keep residents from having to flee for shelters after a storm. He cited sweltering conditions in high-rises for senior citizens, and generators that failed to at least keep elevators running.
For shelters, Gimenez said the county needs to be prepared to operate them without depending on the Red Cross. In July, Miami-Dade signed an agreement with the Red Cross to operate eight hurricane shelters during a storm — typically what the county needs for a hurricane. But with Irma at one point threatening to bring a Category 5 storm to downtown Miami, Gimenez ordered the largest evacuation in Miami-Dade’s history.
More than 600,000 residents, including almost everyone living east of I-95 and U.S. 1, were instructed to leave their homes. To accommodate the fraction of people who typically seek refuge in government shelters, Gimenez and aides rushed to open dozens of shelters capable of housing 100,000 people.
Gimenez said for future storms, the county would rely on county staff and school employees to run shelters that the Red Cross can’t. For Irma, he dispatched county police the night before tropical-storm winds arrived to open about half of the county shelters.
Another challenge was making room for pets at shelters. The county opened only one “pet-friendly” shelter ahead of Irma, but quickly found it filled to capacity. Miami-Dade ultimately opened three more, but wasn’t ready to handle demand from pet owners. On the day before the storm, Miami-Dade announced animals could be dropped off in one full shelter but their owners would need to seek refuge elsewhere.
Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz praised the original pet shelter at the Youth Fair expo center for ignoring capacity rules to make room for more animals. “They said: ‘To the heck with this. Let the fire-inspector guy come during the storm,’ ” Diaz said. “I was very proud of what they did.”