No on-site training. Little guidance. Long, exhausting hours of work with frightened, confused residents. And, perhaps worst of all, forced separation from family members during a hurricane.
Palm Beach County’s requirement that county employees staff evacuation shelters was an unfair, forced burden on employees who were ill-equipped to provide meaningful assistance to the people they were assigned to help, some county employees have told The Palm Beach Post.
Irma, which slashed South Florida six days ago, was the first time the county carried out its new policy of requiring employees to work during or in the immediate aftermath of a storm. Several county employees told The Post the policy was a failure, that shelters were poorly managed and became scenes of violence and mayhem.
“It was such a horrific experience,” said one county employee, who asked not to be named. “I’m traumatized from it.”
County Administrator Verdenia Baker strongly rebutted the notion that the shelters were poorly managed free-for-alls. She said she has heard from many employees who understood they were needed during a difficult time and were proud to have stepped up for county residents.
“Was it perfect?” Baker said. “No. Nothing is. This was the very first time that, between the county and the school district, we took this on. I saw strangers helping strangers, neighbors helping neighbors.”
County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay agreed, saying she was proud of the job county workers did at the shelters.
“I haven’t gotten any negative feedback,” McKinlay said, noting that she was proud of the way county employees and others assisted residents during the storm. “I’ve heard nothing but gratitude.”
Employees contact Post
In the aftermath of the storm, county employees and friends of county employees contacted The Post to complain about the county’s shelter policy and to offer details of what took place in some of the shelters.
One reporter for The Post, embedded at Palm Beach Central High School, saw fights, police ordering evacuees out of the shelter after the storm had passed and one evacuee carried out on a stretcher after he was beaten by the family of a child he had kicked.
A teacher at Seminole Ridge High School in Loxahatchee, which served as a shelter for evacuees from The Glades, said items in her classroom were stolen.
“My filing cabinet desk and storage cabinets were broken into and many items were stolen or destroyed,” said Seminole Ridge teacher Jacquelyn Whitener. “So disheartening.”
Among the stolen items, she said, were a jacket and five flash drives, including ones that contained lesson plans and pictures of her grandchildren.
Initially, the school was not expected to be needed as a shelter, but with fears rising that the hurricane could cause Lake Okeechobee to flood communities in the Glades, Gov. Rick Scott made the decision to evacuate those communities.
Some 2,200 people were sheltered at Seminole Ridge, said the school’s principal, James Campbell. He said some evacuees had to be placed in classrooms because the school’s gym was not large enough to house all of them, and there was not enough staff to monitor the classrooms.
The school lost power on Sunday morning. Toilets stuffed with paper towels overflowed. Feces were spread on a bathroom’s floor, a school district spokeswoman said.
In previous hurricane seasons, Palm Beach County had worked in partnership with the American Red Cross and the School District of Palm Beach County to operate shelters in the county.
Red Cross role changes
But Baker announced to staff June 22 that the county would “no longer be relying on Red Cross” to manage the county’s 15 shelters.
During Hurricane Irma, the Red Cross did help staff six shelters: the ones at Atlantic High, Forest Hill High, Lake Shore Middle, Palm Beach Central High, Palm Beach Gardens High and Park Vista High.
County officials said the policy change was because the Red Cross failed to provide enough staffing when last year’s Hurricane Matthew forced evacuations in the the county and up the east coast of the state.
But Robin Nunley, executive director of the Palm Beach and Martin County chapter of the Red Cross, described the organization’s response differently.
“Certainly in Hurricane Matthew the rapidly changing situation stretched the capacity of many agencies, but the fact remains that the Red Cross opened and staffed all of the 13 general population evacuation shelters requested by Palm Beach County, as well as one pet shelter,” Nunley wrote in an email to The Post. “Additional personnel were allocated to the higher capacity shelters and as volunteers became available.”
Eight months after Matthew, in her announcement detailing the new new policy on shelter staffing, Baker wrote county employees, “We are building multiple teams of trained county staff to work with Palm Beach County School District staff to manage shelters opened during hurricanes and other emergencies. We will no longer be relying on Red Cross to perform this function. We must take care of our own and shelters are a critical component of our emergency response system.”
Baker then told county employees who weren’t already assigned to emergency management duty that they would have “a special opportunity” to sign up to work at a shelter.
By signing up in advance of a storm’s approach, employees could choose the shelter where they would work. Those who did not choose to work in a shelter could choose to work in the immediate aftermath of the storm performing wellness checks or distributing supplies.
Hourly workers would get time and a half for their work while salaried employees would get straight time.
“Please take advantage of the opportunity to sign up now rather than waiting for a future unknown assignment,” Baker wrote. “Our emergency response team is world class. You can be part of this team, experience the satisfaction of helping others in time of need, and receive extra pay while doing so.”
Shelter service compelled
Some employees, however, said the policy is hard-hearted, puts their safety in jeopardy and was not part of their initial job description. They said they objected to being called “volunteers” when they were compelled to work.
“We didn’t even have the option of evacuating if we felt we needed to do so for our safety,” said the county employee who felt traumatized.“There were people who wanted the overtime. I was not willing to work in a shelter. I wanted to be with my family. I volunteer. I’m happy to help people. But I had heard nightmares about the shelters, and now I know they are true.”
Baker said she understands — and shares — the desire to be with family when a dangerous storm approaches.
“If everybody, all county staff, decided they didn’t want to work the shelters, the shelters wouldn’t have been staffed,” she said. “And 17,000 people would not have had a place to go. We are public servants, and if you can’t count on your public servants at a time like this, when can you count on them? We all all had to make sacrifices and leave our families.”
Failure of a county employee to report for storm duty without prior approval “will be considered a violation of county merit rules and may subject the employee to disciplinary action,” according to the new policy.
The county’s policy includes exemptions for employees who cannot work at a shelter for medical or family reasons. Other employees can be exempted if they are scheduled to be on vacation during the storm, provided that time off is approved at least five days before the shelters open.
The county department manager who was recorded describing the new policy to his staff members told them those who work in shelters would be provided with an online video and on-site training, and employees were given access to a 25-minute training video as they completed the storm sign-up form.
County employees, however, said in many instances there was no on-site training or clear supervision at the shelters.
“If this was the storm we were expecting, we would have been in danger, and the public would have been in danger,” said another county employee, who also asked not to be named. “We wandered around and tried to help where we could, but there was no one in charge. No one was given any training.”
Baker said “we really didn’t have the time” to provide on-site training before the storm. More training will be provided in the future, she said.
The Red Cross requires that shelter managers undergo 25 hours of training, Nunley said. Other Red Cross shelter volunteers must undergo at least 15 hours of training.
Nunley also said that when the Red Cross manages a shelter, it segregates evacuees, separating single men from single women and families with children from seniors.
Steven Bayer, community volunteer leader and shelter coordinator for the Red Cross, said Red Cross shelter workers also attempt to determine if an evacuee is a registered sex offender.
“We ask, ‘Are you required to report to anyone, to any agency?’” Bayer said.
Some acknowledge that they are registered sex offenders and are segregated, Bayer said. But they are not refused shelter from the storm.
“We’re not out to exclude anyone at our shelters,” Bayer said.
Some county employees expressed dismay that the mentally ill and those with drug problems were sheltered with families with children.
Volunteers told the Post reporter at Palm Beach Central High that two men were escorted out of the shelter after they were caught masturbating in front of other evacuees.
Police officers or sheriff’s deputies were assigned to work at each shelter.
School District Police Sgt. Dave Nissensohn was in charge of law enforcement at West Boca High, where 700 people were sheltered.
He said the volunteers and high school staff, from Principal Craig Sommer to the janitorial staff, did an incredible job.
“I think that the county did a good job in the sense that the people who were running the shelters handled the shelters correctly,” he said. “The volunteers did their best. The staff did a great job. But it was the outside forces that was the problem, dropping people off without letting us know.’’
Those forces included hospitals and nursing homes.
“It was bizarre,” Nissensohn said. “You’d be standing there and all of a sudden a 90-year-old woman wrapped in a blanket would walk in. Some elderly people arrived wrapped in thick blankets after being discharged from hospitals or dropped off from nursing homes and assisted care facilities. They came without blankets and mats to sleep on. We had a considerable number of them have to sit in chairs for days. Some of them needed a little bit more care than we were really I guess trained for.”
Nissensohn said he saw countless acts of kindness and bravery.
“We had drug addicts who were going into withdrawals and people stepped up to help us with that,” he said. “I had a group of people from a rehab center. I asked them for help. They sent one of their therapists over and he sat on the floor of a bathroom with this young lady to help her. It was very impressive.’’
County employees who contacted The Post said they worked long hours during the storm and that, in many instances, no one took official note of when their shifts began or ended.
“My husband wanted to pick me up,” a county employee said. “I said, ‘You can’t. I’ll lose my job.’”
Baker said the policy change was a necessity given the risk of hurricanes and the limited means of getting people to help residents. She said the policy will be tweaked as she hears more from staff, but there are no plans to abandon the policy change.
“If everybody evacuated with their family, where do you think we’d be?” she asked.