Miami-Dade needs to improve its communications before the next storm, said Mayor Carlos Gimenez, acknowledging that the county could have been clearer about which shelters were open when in the days leading up to Hurricane Irma last month.
The mayor said going into the storm the communication plan was to give a list of open shelters to local media and organizations that help with hurricane preparations. But sometimes evacuees arrived at shelters before volunteers did.
"Somebody released the list of shelters before they were ready to open, and that’s what caused people to stand outside in line," Gimenez said at a recent county meeting debriefing the storm. "People were there before we were able to open them."
In the days before Irma made landfall in Florida, some forecasts projected the storm would bear directly down on Miami as a Category 5 hurricane. The dire forecast prompted Gimenez to order evacuations for about 600,000 residents -- an unprecedented number.
The county announced the bulk of the shelter openings after dark on Friday, Sept. 8, giving people only about a day to evacuate before tropical storm-force winds swept in. In addition to confusion over shelter openings, Gimenez said some people faced long wait times as they filled out paperwork to enter the shelters, and it's a process he hopes to streamline before another storm.
But overall, the mayor said, he's proud that the county, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the Red Cross were ultimately able to open more than 40 shelters with space for about 100,000 people.
"We did what we had to in order to open all of them [the shelters]," Gimenez said. "It was a triumph."
Still, some Miami-Dade residents fell through the cracks of an evacuation system that hadn't been seriously tested since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Many evacuees traveled to multiple shelters before finding one that had space for them. Others waited impatiently for deliveries of food and water, or spent long nights sleeping on hard floors.
In one case, a 76-year-old woman spent three nights as the only caretaker for her disabled adult children after being taken to a shelter not equipped for people with medical conditions.
"One of the challenges we have with vulnerable populations is if they're vulnerable day-to-day, disasters only magnify that," said Curt Sommerhoff, Miami-Dade's director of emergency management. "We do want to get resources out to those folks."
Sommerhoff said people who are elderly, disabled or have other special needs should register with the county for help in the event of a hurricane. He said that at special needs hurricane shelters cots should be available for people who pre-register.
Gimenez said the county will take another look at how it communicates -- both internally and with the public -- before hurricanes.
"There are some things we need to clarify in the future," he said.
In a general population shelter, the mayor said, people should expect security and power "to keep the basics on." He said the county and its partners aim to have food available to evacuees, but Sommerhoff said people should still bring three days’ worth of food and water because supplies can be limited.
Evacuees also should bring medications and their own bedding -- cots aren’t guaranteed at general population shelters during the storm. Post-storm, emergency shelters for people whose homes have been damaged should have cots available to all, according to the Red Cross.
Gimenez said the county will look at opening more pet-friendly shelters before the next hurricane.