Brent Batten: Red Cross volunteers sheltered from flooding

BRENT BATTEN

The American Red Cross advertises, “We’ll be there when you need us.”

You can add the caveat, “Unless ‘there’ is coastal Collier County as a hurricane approaches.”

Updated flood zone maps produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency put all of western Collier County in a flood zone, meaning the Red Cross won’t place volunteers in schools converted to shelters as it has in the past.

Heidi Ruster, regional CEO for the Red Cross in Southwest Florida, said the organization’s national chapter has a rule against putting volunteers in a flood zone in advance of a storm. “The Red Cross just wants to put its best foot forward in improving safety. If there’s increased concern regarding safety, we choose not to staff those shelters,” she said.

Local emergency managers and school officials have scrambled to come up with volunteers to man the 12 primary shelters in western Collier County to make up for the absence of Red Cross.

As soon as a storm passes, the Red Cross volunteers would go to the shelters to take over operations.

Phil Reid, director of security for Collier County schools, said the school system became aware of the need for volunteers to replace those of the Red Cross at the end of the last school year.

Over the summer, 101 school employees have been trained either as shelter managers or staff. He expects more volunteers to take the training once employees return to school from their summer vacations. They will work in addition to the principal, custodian, food service manager and plant operator typically assigned to a school that has been opened as a shelter. Reid said local taxpayers shouldn’t be directly hit with any extra expense, since shelter workers, if they are paid at all, are usually paid by FEMA.

The Red Cross has worked with the schools and the emergency management division to train the new volunteers. In some cases, the volunteers will be the same people who volunteered under the auspices of the Red Cross, Ruster noted.

Flooding is the most dangerous aspect of a hurricane, causing more deaths than high wind.

Local emergency managers have the knowledge and expertise to pick which shelters are most appropriate to open in a given storm. The national Red Cross lacks that local knowledge and isn’t nimble enough to review local decisions on a case-by-case basis, especially when a wide area encompassing many jurisdictions may be threatened by a major storm, Ruster said. Thus, the blanket rule against staffing shelters in flood zones before a hurricane.

Reid said just because the Red Cross won’t man a shelter before a storm, that doesn’t mean the shelter isn’t safe. “Emergency management wouldn’t ask us to open a specific school if it was unsafe. Based on their experience, they’ll know which ones to open,” he said.

The 12 primary shelters that will be staffed pre-storm by non Red Cross volunteers are Palmetto Ridge High, Barron Collier High, Gulf Coast High, Corkscrew Middle, Golden Gate Middle, Oakridge Middle, North Naples Middle, Sabal Palm Middle, Cypress Palm Middle, Golden Terrace Elementary, Golden Gate Elementary and Veterans Memorial Elementary, Reid said. In the event all 12 are needed at once, he said the 101 school volunteers might not be enough to fully staff them but that county employees who are trained as shelter staff will be ready to augment their ranks.

The Red Cross will continue to staff the half-dozen shelters in Immokalee before and after a storm. It will also man shelters throughout the county should they be needed for events other than hurricanes, Ruster said.

She said the hope is that as forecasting methods improve, the Red Cross will be able to pinpoint which shelters are safe from storm surge in a given circumstance and again be able to staff shelters before a storm, even if they are in the FEMA flood zone. “It looks like in a couple of years there will be lot more clarity,” she said.

Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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