Nurses, paramedics to work at county hurricane shelters

July 13, 2018
Residents arrive at the Independence Middle School shelter in preparation for Hurricane Irma in Jupiter on September 8, 2017. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

At least 30 registered nurses will be stationed at Palm Beach County’s 15 shelters in the event of a hurricane this season.

Palm Beach County will be one of the few counties in the U.S. and Florida to station nurses at shelters, said Commissioner Paulette Burdick. The decision resulted from an assessment the county conducted on its preparation for and in response to 2017’s Hurricane Irma.

“The nurses are vitally important. Hurricanes are emotionally stressful for most people. There are a lot of medical conditions where people take medications and those medications can be affected by stress. Sometimes people come down with the flu or a cold, they may get an unexplained fever,” Burdick said.

Also, during Irma, some sober homes “acted irresponsibly” and dropped off their clients at the shelters, leaving them without the proper medical attention, Burdick said.

The nurses, provided by the county’s Health Care District, as well as Palm Beach County Fire Rescue paramedics will be part of a hurricane staffing team that will also include certified nursing assistants and mental health professionals, according to county documents.

Previously, only the special needs shelter had physicians and nurses on staff during storms.

“I think it’s a benefit to the citizens,” said Capt. Albert Borroto, spokesman for county fire rescue. “At least you know you have some kind of medical professionals on site, especially in a storm. If you’re on lockdown in a storm, you don’t have to worry about someone having to drive to the shelter to take care of you.”

Smaller shelters with a capacity under 1,000 residents will have at least two and up to four nurses. Medium sized-ones, which have a capacity of up to 3,000, will have at least three and no more than six. Large shelters, able to host more than 3,000, will have at least four and up to eight.

In a declared disaster, the agencies will submit for reimbursement through FEMA and the county will pitch in the remainder of what is not covered by the state, generally 12.5 percent of the bill. If a disaster is not declared, the county will pay the full amount, said Marianela Diaz, director of finance and administrative services with the county’s public safety department.

Diaz couldn’t give an estimate of how much that might cost the county because there are many variables, including the number of shelters that might be opened.

Experiences at the shelters previously reported by The Palm Beach Post showed a need for the nurses and paramedics. A school police sergeant told The Post that during Irma, hospitals and nursing homes dropped residents off at West Boca Raton High wrapped in blankets. The school police sergeant said some of those people needed more care than what the shelters workers were trained for, and that he saw drug addicts going into withdrawals, too.

A Post reporter embedded at Palm Beach Central High School during Irma last year saw fights and one person needing medical attention carried out on a stretcher after he was beaten in an altercation.

The county previously worked with the American Red Cross at the shelters but decided to lessen that dependency during last year’s hurricane season, the county said, because the Red Cross didn’t provide enough staffing during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Not relying on the Red Cross as much during Irma meant more responsibility for county employees, and some said the county didn’t provide enough training and shelters were disorganized.