Hurricane shelter operations run drills in case of evacuation orders

Hurricane season is just a couple of months away, and Hillsborough County officials are preparing Friday with an evacuation shelter drill.

The county operated close to 50 shelters during Hurricane Ian, serving 8,300 people, according to Katja Miller, Emergency Management Operations section chief for Hillsborough County. 

Miller said Friday’s exercise at Hillsborough Community College in Plant City is a hybrid shelter exercise, meaning they also have a pet shelter set up and a special needs area. She said it’s the first time the county is teaming up with FEMA for an evacuation shelter drill.

"That’s very special for us because it provides us the opportunity to give our shelter managers the chance to exercise and train and test our plans to make sure that we’ve identified any gaps prior to going into the season and potentially serving the public," Miller said. 

It’s also the largest shelter exercise the office of Emergency Management in Hillsborough County has done, Miller said. Close to 200 staff members from the Florida Department of Health and county departments, like Children’s Services and Pet Resources are participating in the drill.

The exercise will simulate a Category One hurricane tracking north of Hillsborough County, bringing heavy rain, storm surge and winds to the area.  

Officials will run operations as close as possible to how they would on the day that shelters open for a storm. They’ll also simulate the start of hurricane impacts.

Shelter staff will be actors, playing residents, while shelter managers will run logistics and check in with those actors at the shelter. Those actors will get an information card with basic information about the resident they’re playing, and any medical issues they may be experiencing. 

"It’s really important to have actors and the managers as a part of this because it makes the drill as realistic as possible and so, you will see a little bit of high stress today. It’s just a natural response going through this," Miller said. "It becomes very realistic and so, that helps us test those plans and also get better feedback from the managers if there’s anything we need to tweak for them or another area focused in training that we need to make sure we need to focus on prior to the season," she said.

Miller said Friday’s exercise is vital ahead of hurricane season.

"That's the wonderful thing about exercises, they’re judgment-free zones, so we encourage people to go as they’ve been trained, but we don’t want them to be scared of making mistakes because those mistakes highlight potentially those training areas that we can focus on the gaps or potential resources that we may need to add in to how we manage and how we operate shelters," Miller said.

Staff said while Friday gives them a more hands-on experience, they train year-round for hurricane season.

"We’re always increasing our capabilities and enhancing our processes, so we can best serve them in times of an emergency. We want people to feel safe as much as they can, but I think this is also a great opportunity for the public to really see what a shelter looks like and what they can expect coming to a shelter," Miller said.

The exercise will run from eight a.m. to 1:45 p.m., and staff will debrief afterward to talk about improvements they can make before hurricane season which starts June first.