If a major hurricane were to threaten South Florida, Broward County leaders still aren’t sure there would be enough staff to run shelters.
And with hurricane season fast approaching — it begins June 1 — the county is scrambling to come up with a plan to keep residents safe.
“I do not have enough staff to do this,” County Administrator Bertha Henry said at a commission meeting Thursday. “We reached out to municipalities for their help. We didn’t get it. Our goal is to make sure our community is safe.”
The issue came to light recently as two coastal cities — Pompano Beach and Hollywood — attempted to get Land Use Plan Amendment approvals for mixed-use projects. The county decided to compel cities to provide shelter staff as a requirement for land use change approvals.
“Today we have a policy in our land use plan that says we shall discourage land use plan amendments which negatively impact hurricane evacuation clearance times and/or emergency shelter capacities,” Henry said at the meeting.
Henry told the Herald that the county is not trying to stop development, but it is trying to make sure it is prepared if there is a major storm. By requiring cities to provide staff in exchange for increased density, the county is trying to be proactive in planning for evacuations, she said.
But several cities say it’s not up to local municipalities to provide sheltering.
“Hollywood is willing and ready to assist the county with practical and statutorily permissible solutions to its sheltering issues,” Hollywood Emergency Manager Jaime Hernandez said. “The city of Hollywood understands that Broward County is requesting help with its sheltering operations, however, the city feels that using mechanisms such as land use plan amendment applications in an attempt to compel municipalities to participate in emergency and disaster sheltering is inappropriate and statutorily impermissible.”
And some say the plan is taking advantage of cities.
“Holding up land use plan amendments, that basically is blackmail it seems like,” said Pompano Beach Mayor Rex Hardin at the meeting. “Not to mention the fact as I stated it’s not going to solve the problem.”
According to the state statute, “safeguarding the life and property of its citizens is an innate responsibility of the governing body of each political subdivision of the state.” While the county says providing the staffing for shelters should be a joint effort, the cities say that the law does not require municipalities to provide staffing. The only mention of staffing in the statute points to the school board.
“If Broward County feels it needs additional resources to conduct its emergency and disaster sheltering operations, Florida law is clear about the county’s legal ability to request and receive those resources from the local school board,” Hernandez said. “Hollywood feels that the law does not place any limitation on the number of resources that the county may request from the school board.”
Henry said the school board does provide some resources, but not enough to staff all of the shelters. In response to a request for comment, the school district said that because it is on spring break, “schedules fluctuate” for employees, meaning nothing further.
In his comments to the commission Thursday, Hernandez cited a response from the Florida Division of Emergency Management where the state says it “has not heard of any county in Florida attempting to compel municipalities or entities other than the local school board to participate in emergency or disaster sheltering.” The Florida Division of Emergency Management did not respond immediately to a Herald request for comment, other than to send a copy of the statute.
Until 2016, shelters were staffed by the American Red Cross. When the organization said it was no longer able to fully staff all the shelters, it became a government responsibility. Henry said the first test came for Broward in 2017 with Hurricane Irma.
“We recognized we need a lot more help,” she said, adding that the county barely managed to staff all the needed shelters. But she said the demands could change based on the storm.
According to the county, 431 county, school district and law enforcement employees were used to staff shelters across Broward during Irma. In all, 14,000 residents used shelters during that storm, the county said. Ideally, it said, it would need 1,110 staffers to have a three-shift system.
Henry said part of the challenge is that most of the county is incorporated. Only about 15,000 of Broward’s 1.9 million residents live in unincorporated areas, officials say.
“When you try to compare Broward County to Miami-Dade and Palm Beach ... the bottom line is Miami-Dade has a huge unincorporated area, which they control. They have lots of people. They can do that. Same with Palm Beach,” Henry said. “We are built-out and incorporated. So trying to compare apples and oranges at this point is counterproductive.”
Also an issue: Providing staff isn’t as simple as just plucking employees and placing them in shelters. They have to be trained and undergo background checks, Henry said. Currently, most of the employees used for shelter staffing are employees in non-critical roles, including librarians and park staff.
“This can’t be done on the fly,” she said.
Chuck Lanza, the former director of emergency management for Broward County and Miami-Dade, said that “in reality the county, by state statute, is responsible for the emergency preparedness and response for the entire county.”
“Sheltering is a regional issue, not a local issue,” he said.
Weston Mayor Daniel Stermer, who spoke at the meeting as the incoming president of the Broward League of Cities, asked the commission to “decouple” the land use issue and the staffing issue and plan a meeting where city, county and school leaders can come together and come up with a plan.
“We agree that there are issues in regards to sheltering,” Stermer said. “The question becomes how do we handle that issue.”
While the commission agreed to separate the land use plan amendments from the staffing issues, most want to see a plan that involves the cities stepping up.
“The reality is we can’t get them all from the county,” said Commissioner Beam Furr. “It’s just not doable. We need people from every single level of government to protect our citizens. That’s probably the best way to go about it.”