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How safe are shelters?

There were no serious injuries after a DeSoto County storm shelter’s roof blew off during Hurricane Charley – but a publicity maelstrom blew through afterward.

BY SUSAN KIM | DESOTO COUNTY, Fla. | December 15, 2004

"People are forgetting that Hurricane Charley was a rarity for this county."

—Matt Holloman

There were no serious injuries after a DeSoto County storm shelter’s roof blew off during Hurricane Charley – but a publicity maelstrom blew through afterward.

“This has been the biggest public relations nightmare of my life," admitted Matt Holloman, public information officer for DeSoto County emergency management.

But Holloman said he was relieved this week after a team of investigative lawyers indicated to county leaders that the county is expected to be cleared of blame.

As Charley hit, the roof blew off the 42,000-square-foot Turner Agri-Civic center, and the east wall collapsed while some 1,400 people were inside.

While some residents have complained the county purposely used a low-bid contractor and skimped on safety, Holloman said lawyers indicated it's not likely the county can be held liable.

But that doesn't mean the structure - built by Trident Building Systems Inc. - wasn't faulty, said Holloway. "The lawyers said it's likely they will find fault with the building or with the design but it won't be the county holding the bag," he said. "But somebody will be at fault here."

Trident Building Systems - based in Sarasota, Fla. - would not comment.

The Turner center was certified by the American Red Cross as a hurricane evacuation shelter in 2003. The center was allegedly built to withstand 140-mph winds, but winds were clocked at 110-mph when the roof blew off.

"People are forgetting that Hurricane Charley was a rarity for this county," said Holloway. "It has been 44 years since a significant hurricane has hit here."

So it wasn't just the Turner center that wasn't ready for the wind, he pointed out. "None of us were emotionally or mentally prepared."

But given the prediction of generally active hurricane seasons to come, the shelter's collapse has people wondering: how safe are storm shelters?

And what are the considerations for churches that want to open as shelters?

A DeSoto County Red Cross official strongly advised churches to work with the Red Cross, which offers well-known training and certification for hurricane shelters. "Preparing any facility as a shelter is complex," he said.

His Red Cross colleague said she knew of no churches in the county that simply "threw their doors open as shelters. They don't just throw their doors open," she said.

But Holloway disagreed. Though many churches partner with the Red Cross, he saw many churches simply throw their doors open this hurricane season without working with the Red Cross or the county, he said.

But just suddenly calling your facility a shelter doesn't mean it's sanctioned by the county, he cautioned. "We don't have any county system through which churches are regulated," he said.

Holloway's own church - in Arcadia - opened as a shelter, housing some people in its recreation hall, but didn't necessarily work with the Red Cross, he said.

And opening a "spontaneous" shelter sometimes works well, he observed. "For my money, some impromptu shelters done by churches are more effective than some county shelters. They are sometimes better attended," he said.

But churches need to be aware of liability issues, he cautioned: "What if there is an emergency, such as a fire?"

The advantage of a church-based shelter is that it can often open at a moment's notice, he said, whereas when the county opens a shelter, county officials must have a certain number of staff from the county and a certain number from the Red Cross.

"Often churches are able to say, hey, there are 20 of us and we're going to run this shelter. They have their own network of volunteers."

Plus, people might not be comfortable going to a county shelter for many reasons, he said. "But for them, their church might be a comfortable center of involvement. In that way, churches supplement what we do during a disaster."

But the county can't give church-operated shelters publicity - and the county in no way officially sanctions them, he emphasized. "We can't be held liable for anything that happens in a church-based shelter."

Statistically, Holloway said, a family's chance of injury is much greater if they ride out a hurricane in a mobile home or a home that's not storm-ready, than if they evacuate into a well-built church. "For the most part, a well-built church will weather a disaster."

At least some churches still making repairs after this hurricane season have vowed to go through whatever process necessary to open as shelters next year. At the First Presbyterian Church in Punta Gorda, the congregation is completely rebuilding the church, said the Rev. Steve Mock.

"We are tearing everything down and raising everything about six or seven feet."

Though the church is trying to stick close to its original downtown site, the congregation is considering rebuilding elsewhere because of the monumental cost.

"But either way, we will be totally up to code," said Mock. "And there is no question that people need shelters."

Mock said residents in his county - Charlotte County - thought they had good shelters but that many of those shelters sustained damage this hurricane season. "A lot of them weren't up to code," he said.

As for DeSoto County, officials are trying to move the focus off of the Turner center and onto planning, zoning and redevelopment, Holloway said. "Right now we need to help residents rebuild. We need to get them permits. We have a long way to go."

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