Hurricane Irma last year strained Miami-Dade's plans for how to handle a major storm and its aftermath, and county leaders are rolling out changes as the 2018 cyclone season begins.
For shelters housing people before a storm, Miami-Dade no longer will rely on the Red Cross or the National Guard to staff the facilities, which usually are located inside public schools. Instead, Miami-Dade plans to tap its own payroll and assign county workers to staff the facilities.
"We feel the thing we have to do with shelters is we need to be as self-reliant as possible," Mayor Carlos Gimenez said. "When you rely on some other entity — I'm not saying they did a bad job — but when you rely on another entity, whether it be Red Cross or the state or the National Guard, you're always beholden to somebody else to do the job."
Miami-Dade now has about 2,000 county employees trained to run certain operations inside an evacuation center before a storm, such as registering people, assigning sleeping areas and distributing provisions. The plans are designed to avoid a repeat of last September's messy opening of 42 centers ahead of Irma — an unprecedented activation of the county's shelter system after Gimenez issued evacuation orders affecting about 600,000 residents for what at one point was forecast as a Category 5 hurricane heading for downtown Miami.
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Miami-Dade had counted on the Red Cross to staff the centers, but the non-profit's agreement with the county for the storm season committed the organization to staff the eight locations activated in the early stages of the evacuation process. Miami-Dade wasn't ready to staff about three dozen more Gimenez wanted as Irma approached. "We didn't have a problem with the shelters that they had," Gimenez said. "When we asked for more, that's when they had a problem."
The mayor ended up dispatching police to manage logistics at the shelters as the county raced to open some after dark the night before tropical storm winds were forecast to arrive in the county.
With almost all shelters inside public schools, the school system has its principals open the buildings, while janitorial and cafeteria staff keep the facility running and provide meals. The county government is responsible for managing the shelter populations.
Jaime Torrens, chief facilities officer for the school system, said the county needed to find a reliable source of shelter workers in the face of the Red Cross not being able to provide volunteer personnel for most of the facilities.
"The Red Cross used to play a much larger role in shelter operations. In recent years, it's been an increasingly waning role.. They rely on volunteers. This really came to a head last year during Irma," Torrens said. On Miami-Dade's new staffing plan, he said: "It's obviously a lot more organized now [after Irma]. This was a lesson learned ... If you have an employee, you can direct them to go there. If you have a volunteer, you have very little leverage over that person."
Grace Meinhofer, regional communications director for the Red Cross, said the relief agency would provide some people to help run the first eight shelters Miami-Dade opens in a storm. But it would no longer assume management duties for the evacuation facilities. "It's a different role than we had before," she said. "Our role would be supportive, and we would provide volunteers for those eight evacuation centers."
The Red Cross would continue running the far smaller number of facilities that remain open after a storm to house people displaced from their homes. (Those are the only facilities the Red Cross considers "shelters," while pre-storm facilities are called evacuation centers.) After a storm passes, the Red Cross will manage relief operations for people needing a place to live.
"The Red Cross will respond swiftly and comprehensively to post-storm needs while the county focuses on the safety and security of our citizens and infrastructure," Meinhofer said.
The county-staffing plan is one of several changes Miami-Dade is making for the 2018 hurricane season and beyond. After shelters accepting pets filled up quicker than the county had anticipated, the county briefly began directing owners to drop off their animals at one place and then stay at another shelter for the storm. Gimenez said Miami-Dade plans more pet-friendly shelters early in the evacuation process.
Miami-Dade also took heat after Irma for its post-storm response in low-income neighborhoods. To address some of that criticism, Miami-Dade commissioners are scheduled on Tuesday to adopt rules requiring certain storm preparations for senior-housing projects funded by the county.
The legislation by Commissioner Audrey Edmonson already has enough cosponsors to constitute a majority on the 13-seat commission. The proposed resolution requires new projects with 40 units or more to have a kitchen and air-conditioned community room that can both operate with a generator after a storm if a hurricane cuts off electricity. The rules would also require a generator-powered water pump to send water to the kitchen. Both facilities must be below the fourth floor.
Elderly residents of affordable-housing complexes were stuck in sweltering upper-floor apartments after Irma knocked out electricity in the region for days. Community groups and non-profits criticized Miami-Dade for not being prepared to help vulnerable residents. New Florida Majority, an advocacy group generally aligned with liberal issues, ran a food bank for storm victims after Irma and led demands for more attention to low-income neighborhoods for the next storm.
Andrea Mercado, New Florida Majority's director, called the legislation a "great start" because having an air-conditioned refuge would have been welcome for some hard-hit buildings after Irma.
"What we saw after the storm was people do need places just to cool down. Having a place where you can charge your phone, and have a room where you can cool down, is an important step," she said. Even so, Mercado noted the rules would only apply to large new projects for senior housing, and not address tax-funded buildings housing families
"We need to find how all of our vulnerable residents can get access to food and water" after a storm, she said.