Storm shelters to get a special needs makeover

Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 12:44 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Although the Legislature failed to pass a bill to improve the use of special storm shelters for the frail elderly and other vulnerable residents, state health and emergency officials said Tuesday they are moving ahead with their own improvement plan as another hurricane season officially begins today.
State Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, told a meeting of state and local emergency officials that she was ''very, very disappointed'' that the Legislature failed to pass the ''special needs'' shelter bill. The House endorsed the measure 112-0, but the Senate never voted on the legislation.
The bill (HB 1551) was designed to address some of the problems that occurred for special needs residents, who range from seniors who need daily medical care to residents who have developmental disabilities, during last year's record hurricane season.
Among the issues are the lack of minimum standards for the shelters, no uniformity in plans for discharging residents from the shelters and no method for reimbursing hospitals and nursing homes that may have to care for the residents if their homes are destroyed by a storm.
Harrell urged the special needs task force to continue its work on improving the shelters and to try to implement as many of the proposals that were in the bill as possible, while knowing that some improvements can't be achieved without a law.
''Some of them, not all of them, can be done cooperatively,'' Harrell said.
She said some improvements, such as establishing a way for nursing homes or hospitals to be reimbursed, would be difficult to achieve without a new law.
Harrell also promised to try to pass the bill next year.
''We will move forward with this legislation next year and come forward with an even more comprehensive bill,'' she said. ''Hopefully, next year we can get the Senate to, as I say, get off their duff.''
Nancy Humbert, a deputy secretary for the Department of Health, said Gov. Jeb Bush has asked his agencies to direct local governments to meet the same standards for their special needs shelters as those recommended by the American Red Cross.
That goal should be met by June 24, she said.
''This is a tall order and very important one,'' she said.
The new standards would primarily ensure that special needs residents would have enough space in the shelters, measured on a square footage basis, as well as have air-conditioning or other methods of cooling the shelters even if electricity is not available, Humbert said.
The goal is to make the special needs residents ''as safe and comfortable as possible,'' she said.
But she also acknowledged that a survey of the shelters by emergency management officials also shows many shelters fall short of the standards now.
''This is a work in progress,'' she said.
Creating a better system for discharging residents from the shelters is another area that state and local officials are working on as the new hurricane season begins.
Erin Geraghty, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elder Affairs, said the state is creating a standardized discharge plan that can be used by local governments when they need to close their shelters and move the special needs residents to other facilities or back into their homes.
While the special needs shelters remain largely the responsibility of the local governments, Geraghty said the state is also developing a multi-agency task force that will be able to answer questions or even provide resources if the local governments request help for their special needs residents.
Another improvement is the creation of a statewide database, which is being developed by the state Agency for Health Care Administration, that would identify facilities that could handle the special needs residents if they have to be moved out of a shelter.
Geraghty said finding alternative locations was a problem during the last hurricane season because of the lack of data.
''We didn't know what was out there because no one could keep up with it in real time,'' she said.
The state is also working on creating pre-storm agreements with nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other organizations that would allow special needs residents to be moved into those facilities if necessary, Geraghty said.
Overall, Geraghty said the goal is to eliminate some of the anxiety the special needs residents may feel if they end up in a shelter.
''The special needs clients aren't sure what's going to happen to them, whether or not someone is taking care of them,'' Geraghty said.
Improving the system ''will take some of the fear out of the process,'' she said.

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