Fla. hurricane shelters may not be safe

Draft report says buildings vulnerable in 155-mph wind


MIAMI -- The very name -- shelter -- promises safety.

When hurricane winds have buckled banana trees, the lights have begun to flicker and the weather forecaster's voice has vanished into static, countless Floridians have, over decades, abandoned their coastal homes for the safety of schools and other sturdy buildings farther inland.

But now a draft report on the ability of those shelters to withstand a strong hurricane, like Andrew in 1992, has called into question just how safe the state's safe havens would be if struck by winds of 155 mph or more from a Category 3 or higher hurricane.

The report, conducted by the state and a private engineering firm in Maryland, found that 95 percent of some 800 shelters tested in coastal Florida failed to meet at least one standard on a 15-point safety check list.

That does not mean, state officials said, that those structures would buckle under a hurricane's wind. While some of the buildings did fail inspection because their walls were not made of concrete reinforced with steel, others failed because they had no storm doors or were in areas that flood, according to the report.

The study, which is in its beginning stages, is intended "to identify opportunities for improving buildings," said Craig Fugate, bureau chief for preparedness and response for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Inspectors failed some shelters because of poor roof drainage -- which can cause a roof to cave in -- and others for such problems as proximity to nuclear power plants and trees, and the lack of a generator.

The initial draft of the report has drawn a heated response from some emergency management officials in Florida's coastal counties, some of whom have said the study nit-picks and might scare people away from shelters.

Emergency management officials said they did not want people to be in their cars along highways -- or worse, in their homes closer to the coast -- when a storm strikes because they did not want to go to shelters closer to home.

"The shelters are like lifeboats," said Larry Gispert, director of Emergency Management for Hillsborough County. "They are not cruise ships. You're not going to be comfortable. There will be crying babies, lots of shouting, a lot of chaos and peanut butter sandwiches. But it is a safer alternative."

The inspections, based on Red Cross criteria, were not intended to close shelters but to identify problems.

Many of the shelters inspected are just brick and glass school buildings, built decades ago, said state officials. But newer buildings, some built in the last decade under more rigid building codes, also failed inspection. In Miami-Dade County, where Hurricane Andrew led to a frenzy of new construction, 44 of 62 shelters failed.

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