PANAMA CITY — Bay County plans to have local educators trained to manage disaster shelters to better respond to evacuation needs.
Since the county uses schools as evacuation and recovery shelters, the idea is that the people who work and use those buildings daily would be best suited to oversee them during and after a disaster. With the area still recovering from Hurricane Michael, more residents might need shelters if even a small storm hits this upcoming hurricane season, meaning more people will be necessary to manage such facilities.
And with more overseers, the county can have more shelters, county officials say.
“Typically prior to Michael, we’d see less than 100 people,” Bob Majka, county manager, said of residents who came to shelters under the threat of a hurricane. “With Michael, we have people who are still in substandard housing and we’ve got people out of their homes … we’re expecting more people to evacuate … we’re preparing for that need for more shelters.”
Majka said the county is working with Bay District Schools and the American Red Cross to have educators trained in how to manage a shelter if necessary.
“Who knows the shelters better than the people who work there every day?" Majka added.
While the Red Cross helps the county manage evacuation shelters if an evacuation order is given, it only has enough local volunteers to oversee two facilities at a time.
“Our commitment to the county before Hurricane Michael was to staff two evacuation shelters, and we’ve committed again to staff two evacuation shelters after Hurricane Michael,” said Bob Pearce, regional disaster officer for the Red Cross.
Pearce noted that once a hurricane hits, evacuation shelters are converted to recovery shelters, at which point the Red Cross sends volunteers from other regions as needed. At one point, the county had four shelters after Michael before they were later consolidated.
Pearce said he supported the county and school district working together to train more volunteers to manage additional evacuation and recovery shelters.
“It’s a good idea for the school district to get involved in sheltering … we’ll be doing the training at their request,” Pearce said.
Sharon Michalik, director of communications for the school district, said the current goal is to have between 60 and 80 people trained to manage four schools as shelters by the third week of June.
“That will give us a deep pool of people from which to draw,” Michalik said.
The district decided to become part of the shelter process after noticing some operational inefficiencies after Michael, Michalik said.
“We think these could be better addressed by school administrators overseeing the shelters,” she said. “Before, we just had administrators with the keys to the buildings, showing people where the breakers were — now they’ll do more of a management role.”
With school administrators at the helm, the entire sheltering process will be quicker, Michalik said.
“We believe that will help to more quickly mobilize and demobilize shelters so they can more quickly be returned to schools,” Michalik said.
Michalik added that district staff were already hammering out policy guidelines for the future shelter managers and that Red Cross would still help with the facilities if disaster hits.
“We absolutely appreciate all the services from the Red Cross and we certainly couldn’t do what we do without them,” Michalik said.