Red Cross ‘didn’t show up’ at hurricane shelters, says Miami-Dade schools chief

Miami-Dade schools chief Alberto Carvalho said Monday the county’s chaotic opening of dozens of shelters ahead of Hurricane Irma was caused in part because the Red Cross “didn’t show up” to manage operations.

Schools served as most of the 42 shelters that Miami-Dade’s county government opened ahead of Irma, the largest number ever operated as a response to an unprecedented evacuation order affecting more than 600,000 residents.

But Red Cross officials said Miami-Dade had only asked it to ready eight shelters for the 2017 storm season. The not-for-profit went beyond that commitment, it said, when the county scrambled to open more than 40 shelters in the frantic run-up to Hurricane Irma.

“Prior to the start of the 2017 hurricane season American Red Cross disaster managers met with emergency managers in every county in Florida to reach agreements on how many evacuation centers the Red Cross would be expected to open in the event of a hurricane,” the charity said in a statement.

“In Miami-Dade the agreement was for the Red Cross to open eight of these centers. Schools to be used as shelters are pre-identified by the school system and county emergency management. When the need arises, county emergency managers in coordination with the school system pick specific shelter locations and ask the Red Cross to operate the centers. With the approach of hurricane Irma the Red Cross was asked to open the eight evacuation centers we committed to on Thursday. Seven of those centers were opened by the end of the day, and the eighth was opened the next morning.”

Although the Red Cross commitment across the state of Florida was to open 116 evacuation centers, for Irma 258 Red Cross managed centers were opened which provided a safe place out of the storm for nearly 185,000 Floridians.

After Mayor Carlos Gimenez issued evacuation orders for more than 600,000 residents, the county scrambled to open more shelters than at any time in its history. The Red Cross said it agreed at the last minute to open four more shelters and help the county operate seven others.

Both the county and the school system pointed to a lack of Red Cross staffers in explaining some of the chaotic and delayed opening of shelters across Miami-Dade last week.

Gimenez said the Red Cross had run out of volunteers and that the National Guard was arriving in Miami too late to staff the facilities. He sent county police to staff them instead.

As mayor, Gimenez is responsible for opening shelters, and most of them are located in schools.

Carvalho on Monday said Red Cross staff did not show up at some schools designated as shelters or were late enough to force principals to take over.

“In some instances the Red Cross showed up very late. In some instances, the Red Cross never showed up,” Carvalho said at a press conference at Shenandoah Middle School on Monday. “We made an executive decision that we would open the shelters on our own led by our principals and our custodians and our cafeteria workers.”

Carvalho’s remarks were the latest to question Miami-Dade’s readiness to shelter residents during a major storm. Gimenez acknowledged “glitches” in opening the shelters, some of which only became available after dark on Friday with tropical storm conditions arriving the next morning.

He cited the Red Cross running out of staff and volunteers in Miami, as well as the National Guard arriving after the county needed troops to help open the shelters. Gimenez dispatched county police officers on Friday to fill in staffing gaps, and praised the school system for its response. The National Guard arrived in force late Friday, county officials said.

Carvalho joined National Guard troops at his press conference, calling them the “heroes” that got shelters running smoothly.

“We had scant support from anyone else, save from the National Guard and our staff,” Carvalho said.