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Air Quality Spurs State To Move Disabled Residents

Sunland Center from the outside
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The Florida Channel
Sunland safety inspectors conducted tests on the campus following devistation from Hurricane Michael last October.

Amid concerns about poor air quality at two residence halls, the state last week moved 27 residents with developmental and intellectual disabilities into new living quarters at a state-run center in Northwest Florida. 

And that just may be the start. Marguerite Morgan, superintendent of the Sunland Center in Marianna, sent a letter Sept. 11 to staff members saying that air quality will be an “ongoing priority at Sunland for some time to come.”

Patty Houghland, a disability-rights advocate for a federally funded watchdog organization, expressed worries, though, that the new residential quarters aren’t any safer than the buildings that residents vacated at the Jackson County facility.

“I just don’t know how they pick which building they are going to go to,” said Houghland, an advocate at Disability Rights Florida, which works on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “They won’t tell us how bad it really is. And the whole place is just a mess.”

In addition to moving the 27 residents, the state also relocated three staff members from what Morgan described as the “quality management building.”

Morgan advised staff in her letter that Sunland safety inspectors conducted “visual inspections” and testing on the campus following Hurricane Michael’s landfall last October.  The Category 5 hurricane caused massive damage in Jackson County and surrounding areas.

“Due to the storm damage, there was some concern about the dampness affecting the air quality of some buildings, so the Sunland Life Safety personnel conducted visual inspections and testing,” she wrote. “Once initial testing indicated a possible concern, APD hired a professional company to test campus buildings for a variety of issues to ensure the air quality of the buildings at Sunland Center.”

In all, the state paid the vendor to conduct testing on 13 buildings on the Sunland campus, according to Morgan’s letter. Marianna is located about 60 miles west of Tallahassee.

Melanie Mowry Etters, a spokeswoman for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, said in a prepared statement that the air-quality issues caused residents to be moved from the center’s East Washington and East Truman buildings.

“The Agency for Persons with Disabilities is committed to the health and safety of its customers and employees,” Etters said. “Hurricane Michael caused catastrophic devastation in Jackson County and severely impacted the Sunland Center. To address possible air quality issues, Sunland hired an expert to conduct testing. We have had preliminary discussions with the vendor on 13 buildings that have been tested. The preliminary findings show that two residences, East Washington and East Truman, have a few areas with air quality issues so we immediately moved the 27 residents to the Johnson and Madison buildings. We relocated three employees from the Quality Management building to the Administration building due to air quality concerns.”

Morgan’s letter did not disclose what the vendor was testing for, but a four-page document obtained by The News Service of Florida titled “Sunland Center Hurricane Michael” shows the state is testing for mold and asbestos.

Also, recently filed budget documents show that the Agency for Persons with Disabilities is requesting money in the upcoming fiscal year for repairs and maintenance for the Sunland facility, some of which will be used for asbestos abatement to “help reduce the risk of breathing problems in resident homes and the facility.”

“Again, our first priority is the health, safety and welfare of our residents and those who take such great care of them here at Sunland,” Morgan wrote in the letter. She also noted that, given “the enormity of the scope, testing, addressing and monitoring, air quality will be (an) ongoing priority at Sunland for some time to come.”

Sunland Center serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities whose care is funded through Medicaid. The campus once served as a military training base for pilots during World War II.

It is a self-contained community with a store, adult-education classroom space and a recycling operation where residents can work. It also includes a pool for exercise and recreation.

Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he was not aware of the conditions at Sunland.

“That’s absolutely, 100 percent unacceptable,” Bradley said. “That’s the type of thing that concerns me more than anything that the state government can do.”

The News Service reported in August about an email Houghland sent to the  Agency for Persons with Disabilities highlighting filthy living conditions at the facility. In her email, she said there were air-conditioner vents that were “black.” She also advised the agency of staffing problems.

Houghland, who has worked for Disability Rights Florida for more than 17 years, said she will continue to visit the campus to ensure that the residents, many of whom have been there for decades, receive better care.

“I’m just going to be a pain-in-the-ass parent, basically” Houghland said, adding, “because they are all my kids out there…”