Storm shelters gaining power

May 12, 2008

Palm Beach Post--May 10, 2008

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

As hurricane season neared last year, state agencies were in chaos trying to implement key elements of a 2006 state law aimed at better preparation of special shelters and gas stations for big storms.

Legislators gave state officials more money to buy generators for shelters, as the law requires, and the ability to find more money later.

"I’m pleased it is finally coming to fruition and we’re getting things back on track," said state Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, one of the architects of the 2006 hurricane readiness law.

State officials promised last year that special-needs hurricane shelters such as the one in Martin County would receive massive generators that could provide power for days.

The generators that were paid for sat unused in warehouse because of the lack of money for installation. An infusion of money this year will get them up and running.

"We can sort of see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Keith Holman, Martin County’s emergency management director.

Holman has been trying to get a generator needed to open the county’s special-needs shelter at David L. Anderson Middle School south of Stuart for more than a year.

The law was supposed to provide funding to equip 64 special needs shelters that house people with oxygen dependency or other medical conditions with generators large enough to run air conditioners and electrical outlets.

But officials with the Florida Department of Emergency Management said the $52.8 million they originally got from the legislature was not enough.

Because of rising costs, the state was able to afford to equip only 16 shelters last year, leaving officials in Martin and St. Lucie counties frustrated.

Several counties paid to install their own generators, and other shelters were dropped off the priority list.

Martin officials were ready to move into the Anderson shelter, which could accommodate 500 people, but without the generator, the county has had to stick with the much smaller Challenger School shelter, Holman said.

Energy Management spokesman Mike Stone said legislators gave his department the authority to spend another $50 million to install special-needs shelter generators. But legislators appropriated only $6.5 million.

Danny Kilcollins, planning manager for the division, said the state also has another $5 million from a federal grant it can use for the installations.

With that money, the division hopes to install generators in its 10 highest priority shelters, including Martin County, Kilcollins said.

That news delighted Holman.

"We are told that we are at the top of the list so the project will occur soon," he said.

Kilcollins said he did not know when the shelters in Martin would get their generators.

Holman said the state wants the county or the school district to manage the construction project to try to lower the costs.

That will leave another 16 shelters left to equip. Stone said the department will be examining other federal grants to see if any of them could be used for installing those generators.

In St. Lucie County, Emergency Management Director Tom Christopher said he found a new option and the county withdrew its request for a generator at Dan McCarty Middle School.

The county will instead temporarily move its special-needs shelter to Samuel S. Gaines Academy near Fort Pierce. That school had a generator installed last year capable of running the air conditioning.

By September, the county also will finish building a new permanent special-needs shelter at a community center on Virginia Avenue.

Another portion of the hurricane law that caused confusion last year also appears to be resolved.

The law was supposed to require larger gas stations near evacuation routes be wired to handle portable generators. But state officials last year said a computer glitch caused them to underestimate which stations were required to comply. Only about half of the stations were wired by August.

Terence McElroy, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said that all but 10 of the 1,100 stations that must comply with the law are now wired.

The remaining stations are trying to comply but are mostly too old to meet local building and zoning codes to get new permits needed to rewire their stations, McElroy said. The state agency is holding off on taking any enforcement actions.

"We don’t really know the best way to proceed," McElroy said. "We don’t want to sue someone who can’t come into compliance."