Miami-Dade government employs the second-largest workforce in the county. Why couldn’t it find enough people to open hurricane shelters on time?
That’s one of the topics likely to be broached Thursday when the County Commission convenes a meeting at 1 p.m. to examine Miami-Dade’s response to Hurricane Irma, which sparked the largest evacuation in the county’s history as well as complaints that the government wasn’t ready for the logistical demands of a major storm.
The most visible challenges came in the increasingly frantic days before Irma’s projected landfall in South Florida. Until the Friday before Irma hit on Sunday, Sept. 10, forecasts had the Category 5 storm as one of the most threatening ever for Miami, with the possibility of the eye crossing the city’s downtown. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez issued unprecedented evacuation orders for more than 600,000 residents.
Then came the race to open enough shelters capable of housing even a fraction people ordered to flee their homes ahead of Irma.
Miami-Dade didn’t announce the bulk of its shelter openings until after dark on Friday, the last day before tropical-storm winds arrived in South Florida. And throughout the day Friday, as Miami-Dade went from operating eight shelters in the morning to to nearly two dozen in the evening, Gimenez faced complaints of delayed openings, missing managers and inadequate provisions and staffing at the schools converted into county-run refuges.
“It was not fair to have elderly in the heat,” said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who said he was concerned enough about the shelter situation that he called Gov. Rick Scott to ask for more food.
Carvalho described the school system having to take over for Miami-Dade on-the-spot at school shelters where people were eager to come inside but faced closed doors due to a lack of county staff there to manage the facility. “We made the executive decision to open.”
During press conferences at the county’s emergency center in Doral, Gimenez cited a lack of staff to manage an unprecedented amount of shelters. He said the Red Cross was out of volunteers and the Florida National Guard wouldn’t be arriving in time to make up the difference. After sunset that night, he announced a new plan: Miami-Dade police would take over shelter openings, allowing the county to open more than 20 facilities that night and reach the goal of being ready to take in 100,000 residents.
In the end, Miami-Dade did manage to open more than 40 shelters, give refuge to about 31,000 people and still have room for 69,000 more temporary refugees if Irma had gone from bad to catastrophic for Miami. All of the shelter figures set records for Miami-Dade, making the Irma effort the largest and most complicated run-up to a storm in the county’s history.
“We did get it done,” Gimenez said. “But there were some glitches along the way.”
Mayted Millan had a string of glitches to share during her stay at a Miami-Dade shelter.
She stayed in an art classroom at South Dade Middle with her twin babies, who were recovering from a respiratory virus; her ailing mother, who had lung disease; and two other children. The babies needed to take medicine twice a day through a nebulizer, a machine that turns liquid medicine into mist. That required electricity, but after Irma hit that Sunday, the power went out. A generator kept the lights on, but none of the plugs in the art classroom or the hallways was working. With no air conditioning, Millan and her mother were fanning the babies with pieces of cardboard and Styrofoam plates.
Millan had tried to take her family to the shelter at John A. Ferguson Senior High, which was designated for people with medical conditions. She had called the 311 county helpline ahead of time to reserve a spot. But when she got to Ferguson, she was told to take the babies to the hospital during the storm. Instead, Millan tried another shelter — she was afraid the hospital wouldn’t take in the rest of her family.
By the time Millan got to South Dade Middle, around 5 p.m. on Friday, she had been to three other shelters. She set up a makeshift sleeping area for the kids in the art classroom. Once the power went out, Millan had to take the babies to the school’s main office twice a day to use the nebulizer — the only outlets that still worked were in two computer rooms near the principal’s office.
“I have to go on a mission to go to an outlet,” Millan told the Miami Herald on the Sunday the storm hit.
Millan had no complaints about the staff. School administrators, county police and National Guardsmen checked on the babies throughout the weekend. “The people are nice,” Milan said. “They’re doing their best.”
But what she didn’t understand was why the shelters weren’t more prepared to receive sick people. “They should have a medical section with outlets for old people and kids,” she said. “We pay taxes, even if we’re poor.”
The messy process of opening 42 shelters raised questions about Miami-Dade’s readiness for a major storm, and prompted demands for the county to rethink its plan for housing residents ordered by the mayor to leave their homes in advance of a hurricane.
“There are a lot of question marks about the shelters,” said Esteban “Steve” Bovo, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission. “Who mans them? Why weren’t they open? I’m not blaming anybody. But I’m saying we need to analyze our protocols.”
Bovo will preside over an unusual commission meeting Thursday with an agenda devoted to Irma and what could be done better. Along with shelter readiness, the county also faced questions on its response to low-income neighborhoods after the storm. At the same time, Miami-Dade received high marks for its storm-debris operation, offering competitive rates for haulers at a time when cities said they were losing private clean-up crews because of lower fees built into agreements negotiated before the storm.
Thursday’s meeting could give the Gimenez administration a chance to explain its original plan for opening dozens of shelters to accommodate people affected by the mayor’s unprecedented evacuation order covering most residents living east of I-95 and U.S. 1. Documents released this week by Miami-Dade’s Department of Fire and Rescue show the Red Cross agreed to run only eight shelters for the county during a storm.
“No more than eight shelters will be expected by the County,” reads the five-year Memorandum of Understanding dated July 12, and signed by Curtis Sommerhoff, \Miami-Dade’s director of emergency management. “Upon request, and only if resources are readily available, the Red Cross may assist in supporting additional County shelter facilities above and beyond those listed.”
Grace Meinhofer, communications director for the Red Cross in South Florida, said the charity did not turn down a Miami-Dade request for more help. “We never said: ‘We don’t have more people.’”
Miami-Dade itself has a program for using some of its 27,000 county employees to staff shelters, tapping the second-largest workforce behind the school system. Known as the Disaster Assistance Employee Program, it trains county employees to staff various posts needed for hurricane response, including at shelters.
Erika Benitez, spokeswoman for the Fire and Rescue department, said Miami-Dade dispatched about 350 county employees to work at shelters during Irma, beyond the police officers sent to open them. She did not respond to a question about why the county employees in the Disaster Assistance program weren’t able to open and run shelters themselves.
With Miami-Dade unable to deploy enough staff to open shelters on schedule in the days before Irma, school administrators said principals and cafeteria supervisors on site were forced into temporary roles of shelter managers.
“Our responsibility is really to provide a facility, but we always end up doing considerably more than that,” said Jaime Torrens, chief facilities officer for the county school system and its emergency manager.
He said school staff was forced to take over some shelters when a list of facilities from the county circulated in public before Gimenez was ready to announce their openings. That sent residents lining up outside the schools, adding to pressure to open the doors for school staff there to get ready for someone from Miami-Dade or the Red Cross to arrive.
But despite the stressful start, Torrens said the situation did “remedy itself” well before Irma arrived, with county police and then the National Guard arriving the Friday before the storm to take over.
“It just comes down to coordination,” he said. “Everybody is trying to do the right thing and just make sure we do the best job possible.”