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Donald McClaskey works as a systems analyst in Miami-Dade County’s Information Technology department, but on this June afternoon he finds himself helping manage a hurricane shelter facing a string of challenges.
In the registration line, there’s a woman about to identify herself as a federal immigration officer who would like to interview people seeking shelter. A former couple happened to arrive at the registration table at roughly the same time, and each has a restraining order against the other. Four women report they were dropped off from a county domestic-violence shelter, and one is also a registered sex offender.
“Do you need police?” McClaskey asks one of the women from the shelter, who nods yes. “OK, just a minute. Let me get my manager.”
McClaskey may seem unfazed, since this is a drill in a Doral high school and the evacuees are actually fellow county employees assigned roles by trainers. But the underlying drill for about 50 county employees carries high stakes for Miami-Dade and the next hurricane to hit Miami.
Rattled by staffing shortages as Miami-Dade raced to open shelters last September when Irma threatened, the county this year is ending its practice of having the Red Cross manage its core evacuation centers. Instead, Miami-Dade is pledging to have about 2,000 government workers ready to run dozens of evacuation centers when a storm threatens.
“We need to be as self-reliant as possible,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said at a May 31 press conference announcing the new strategy. “I just feel more comfortable knowing it’s under our control, and it will get done the way we want it to get done.”
For the 2017 hurricane season, Miami-Dade’s agreement with the Red Cross only obligated the charity to manage eight shelters in the run-up to a hurricane.
When forecasters warned Irma could bring Category 5 winds to downtown Miami and bring flooding east of I-95 up and down the county, Gimenez ordered the largest evacuation in Miami-Dade’s history. The voluntary evacuation order covered more than 600,000 residents, and Gimenez ultimately instructed emergency managers to open 42 shelters to accommodate evacuees who had nowhere else to go.
The Red Cross didn’t have the volunteers to open the additional shelters, and Florida’s National Guard also wasn’t able to meet county requests for emergency help. That left the county scrambling to open new shelters as others filled up, sometimes with residents left outside pressing to enter.
As the sun set on Friday, Sept. 8, Gimenez ordered county police to staff the remaining two dozen shelters still unopened to meet the mayor’s goal of housing up to 100,000 people. Tropical storm winds were forecast for the following afternoon, and the hurricane hit Sunday, Sept. 10.
For this storm season, the Red Cross has agreed to play a backup role at the evacuation centers, rather than running them. It will continue managing shelters that remain open after a storm to house residents unable to go home. After Irma, that left the Red Cross managing the Fuchs convention center at Tamiami Park until the first week of October.
“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,” said Grace Meinhofer, communications director for the Red Cross in the South Florida region.
Meinhofer said the week of training programs for county employees to work pre-storm shelters were based on Red Cross materials. And Red Cross had volunteers at the seminar at the Ronald W. Reagan/Doral Senior High School to show McClaskey and about 50 other employees how to assemble cots and set up medical beds.
Public schools make up most of the shelters, with principals on hand to manage the building, cafeteria staff preparing food and custodial workers handling trash and repairs. The county government is responsible for managing the shelter operations and residents who show up for refuge.
Miami-Dade has been training county staff to work the shelters since 2005, when it started its Disaster Assistance Employee program. Erika Benitez, spokeswoman for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, which oversees the county’s emergency operations, said fewer than 400 employees were trained for the 2017 storm season. With 2,000 employees trained in 2018, Benitez said the county would have enough workers to operate more than 70 shelters.
Lou Alexis, an emergency-management coordinator for the county’s fire department, led the training at Reagan High. For county employees helping people register, Alexis urged them to keep an eye out for people who shouldn’t be waiting too long for a spot inside.
“It may be hot. The lines may be long. You may have families with little children in the line. People who are disabled, elderly and frail,” he said. “We should be reaching out to them, prioritizing them.”
He also told employees to watch out for people over-doing their provisioning for a shelter stay. “Some people brought refrigerators,” Alexis said of Irma. “And box springs, mattresses. You name it, they’ll bring it.”
The county tells people heading to shelters to bring their own bedding. Cots aren’t standard issue, but Alexis said they may be issued for people with special needs. That can cause new problems.
“If you’re able to assist that person, the minute you do everybody is going to want something as well,” Alexis said. “We try to push the personal preparedness message.”
At the check-in training, three employees playing the role of the domestic-violence victims were ushered off to what a county worker said would be a more isolated location. The registered sex offender was told to wait until a police officer could talk to her. For the couple with dueling restraining orders, Alexis stepped in to say whoever arrived at the registration table second had to leave for a different shelter.
Shawana Powell, an electronic-document technician for the county’s Regulatory and Economic Resources Department, held a slip of computer paper with an assigned scenario for her role-playing moment.
“I’m with Immigration,” she said after talking briefly with the registration clerk working the table set up outside the high school’s gymnasium. “I want to do interviews in the shelter. They basically told me no.”
(ICE said last year that it would not conduct sweeps at hurricane shelters, and the agency’s Miami spokesman, Nestor Yglesias, said the county scenario didn’t make sense. “ICE does targeted enforcement,” he said. “ICE does not do indiscriminate round-ups or sweeps.” )
In his wrap-up, Alexis told the county workers to use common sense when the unexpected hits shelter operations. “Perfection doesn’t exist when it comes to disasters,” he said. “We do the best that we can.”