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Guest opinion: Lee County has a multi-component shelter plan in place; 34,000 Hurricane Irma evacuees successfully housed
October 12, 2017

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After the successful housing of 34,000 Irma evacuees, and the orderly mandatory evacuation of more than 300,000 residents, it's disappointing that a regional media outlet would present a distorted picture of the week leading up to the largest sheltering event in Lee County history.

To imply that "the county should not have been caught off guard" is insulting to the many dedicated public servants, volunteers and community partners who worked around the clock to plan, prepare and protect Lee County from what could have been an unimaginable catastrophe.

All disasters bring challenges, but we emerged from this disaster with no direct loss of life explicitly because Lee County had a disaster plan in place and established relationships with key community partners, and it worked. In fact, FEMA officials noted on their post-Irma visits to Lee County Emergency Management that the county's integrated response was more akin to a state response in coordination and execution.

Remember, the entire Florida peninsula was in the forecast cone and Lee County planned accordingly based on the likely threat to both coasts. During the days following the Lee Board of County Commissioners' State of Local Emergency declaration Sept. 5, the Lee County Emergency Operations Center opened a total of 14 shelters, including two for people with special needs. We deployed more than 150 county staff and volunteers, substantially more than the 20 staff and volunteers reported who were trained to run shelters.

Each shelter employed a Lee County shelter manager, with additional support from Lee County Sheriff's Office deputies, Lee County Emergency Medical Services providers, Lee County Domestic Animal Services personnel, county volunteers, the Florida Department of Health and the Florida National Guard. Additional support came from school staff and volunteers. It is ludicrous to suggest that no one knew who was in charge when protocols were in place and followed.

Because of the leadership of school district Superintendent Greg Adkins and the support of his staff, the county and district have expanded shelter capacity and continue year-round disaster-response training with school staff and volunteers. This planning led to quick activation of additional shelters prior to the onset of tropical storm-force winds. Additional logistical support from the Lee County Sheriff's Office and the United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades and Okeechobee Counties, which ran the county's United Way 211 information help line, made this a cohesive and integrated response. This was a logistical challenge, but we are pleased with the outcomes.

We initially activated two pet-friendly shelters but modified our policy to allow pets at all shelters after storm-surge warnings prompted expanded mandatory evacuations. We know from experience that residents will not evacuate without their pets. We mitigated the decision's impact by assigning 50 Lee County Domestic Animal Services employees to the shelters and designating pet and non-pet areas. In addition, the county had a pre-storm contract in place with a professional cleaning company to restore each shelter site to its pre-storm condition.

Shelters have generators in place for life-safety systems, which include emergency lighting, refrigerators and air handlers. A shelter is a last-resort option for those who did not evacuate to family, friends or hotels. Each shelter served its purpose of keeping people safe while the storm approached and in its immediate aftermath. The American Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way, and Lee County Human and Veteran Services now serve as the long-term service providers for those unable to return home because of storm damage.

Forecasts from the National Hurricane Center in Miami and the National Weather Service in Tampa led the county to make its mandatory evacuation decisions at the appropriate times for barrier islands and mobile home residents initially. As the forecast impacts and storm-models developed, evacuations were expanded. To suggest that the federal entities' collective experience be second-guessed in order to expand shelters in Cape Coral is irresponsible. Island Coast High School, in northeast Cape Coral, housed 3,840 people. Nothing prevented Cape residents from accessing Lee County's 13 other shelters - not even transportation, which the county provided via LeeTran for free, if needed.

We will continue to the after-action review, remain professional and stand tall.

- Roger Desjarlais is the Lee County Manager.

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