TAMPA, Fla. - During 2017's Hurricane Irma, shelters designed to help those with special needs in Hillsborough County were over capacity, housing about 1,700 people.
Displaced residents and their caregivers filled the Sun Dome and lined the hallways of the University of South Florida. USF student volunteers supplemented the care being given by nurses, doctors, and Tampa Fire Rescue crews.
"I believe it was our largest evacuation in Florida history," offered Allyson Sisson of the Florida Department of Health - Hillsborough, who coordinates special needs shelters in Hillsborough and spent Hurricane Irma at the Hillsborough County Emergency Operations Center.
Florida law created a requirement for shelters that cater to those with physical, mental, sensory disabilities, or cognitive impairments like dementia.
"If you are electric-dependent, you are on oxygen, or if you live in a mobile home, you want to evacuate as if you were in flood zone A," Sisson explained.
In other words, your safety will be a top priority, but there are steps you have to take before the storm so emergency crews can prepare.
Sisson advises if you think you think you'll need a special needs shelter, don't wait to register with the state.
Hurricane Irma's size and unpredictability created a surge of residents seeking shelter later than they should have. That resulted in people staying in special needs shelters that may have been otherwise directed to a hospital.
Registering for services can grant you access to things like transportation, access to electricity and medical equipment, and even help for service animals.
The registration process varies depending on your county. Many agencies offer help with registration, including home healthcare, clinics, doctors offices, and hospice.
Registering for a special needs shelter doesn't guarantee you will qualify for services, but it will allow you to plan ahead.
For more information about special needs shelters in Florida, visit: http://www.floridahealth.gov/programs-and-services/emergency-preparedness-and-response/disaster-response-resources/spns-index.html