Drug overdoses among new challenges for hurricane shelters

Nearly 16,000 people in nine counties from Indian River to Miami-Dade evacuated to shelters during Hurricane Matthew, toting typical sleepover accessories — and their own personal demons.

Six evacuees who sought refuge at Atlantic High School in Delray Beach overdosed on drugs as the dangerous Category 4 cyclone approached South Florida.

In another county, a bus full of teenagers from a residential addiction-treatment center was left at an American Red Cross-run shelter without adult oversight.

“Many of the people from sober homes came with supervision, but some came and were just dropped off,” said Delray Beach Fire Rescue Capt. Kevin Saxton, who confirmed the six overdoses at Atlantic. “There were witnesses seeing people shoot up.”

Concerns about drug-related activity at shelters — and caring for people with other medical and mental health needs — were raised during the Governor’s Hurricane Conference last week in West Palm Beach.

Related: Why some beachfront residents in Palm Beach County didn’t evacuate during Hurricane Matthew

Hurricane Matthew was the first large-scale evacuation in Florida since 2005’s Hurricane Wilma. Dozens of shelters in coastal communities opened statewide during the early October storm, with tens of thousands of people fleeing to the safety they offered.

But emergency managers and American Red Cross officials said the massive effort came with new challenges.

In Brevard County, emergency managers said people went to pet-friendly shelters – a relatively new concept in sheltering – with no pet food, no crates and no way to clean up after their pets.

As winds tapered off Friday night in Volusia County, evacuees left shelters while it was still dark outside, even though they were asked to stay by officials wary of downed power lines, debris and broken street lights.

“People wanted out of the shelter, and we couldn’t put a gun to them,” said James Judge, Volusia County emergency-management director.

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At one shelter, two teenagers were brought in by law enforcement after they were found on the street skateboarding during the storm. The Red Cross will not take unaccompanied minors and directed them to law enforcement who “deemed they were not baby sitters,” said Charles Parker, senior disaster program manager for the American Red Cross in South Florida.

“It was like every exercise I have ever done in sheltering,” Parker said. “There is a wide spectrum of people who will come through the doors. I want our people to know this is going to be your potential group of clients, so don’t be surprised.”

Florida’s counties handle shelters differently. Some rely mostly on Red Cross volunteers while others use county employees to staff shelters, which are usually in public schools. Palm Beach County has a mix of both and is training more county staff members to run what can become hectic hubs of calamity with unprepared, hungry and unhappy people.

Parker said one of the biggest problems during Matthew was miscommunication between the Red Cross and government officials about what shelters were opening and when. Complicating things further — it was an election year.

“There would be a demand that a shelter be open even if there was no specific need other than a political need,” Parker said.

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It should be no surprise with the number of sober homes in Palm Beach County that their residents would go to a public shelter, but they present a unique challenge.

Hospitals, nursing homes, and health care facilities are required by law to have their evacuation plans approved by county emergency managers so first responders know where those special-needs clients are going during the storm.

Sober homes have no such requirement, said Bill Johnson, director of Palm Beach County’s Emergency Operations Center.

“It is my understanding that some of the sober homes encouraged their clients to go to one of our shelters,” Johnson said. “A shelter is not equipped to be a rehab center. We don’t have that kind of skill set.”

About 7,100 people stayed in Palm Beach County’s 13 shelters during Hurricane Matthew. Bags brought by evacuees are not searched because of the urgency of getting people checked in and the heap of supplies people bring – pillows, blankets, food.

Related: Flight director recalls harrowing trips into monster Hurricane Matthew

There were four EMTs at Atlantic High School, Saxton said. Palm Beach County School District police are also on site.

According to a school district police report, on Oct. 6 at about 5:30 p.m., a 38-year-old man was found in the school gymnasium bathroom and taken to Delray Medical Center for treatment of a possible drug overdose.

At the time, Category 4 Hurricane Matthew was 90 miles east-southeast of West Palm Beach.

Saxton said some of the evacuees from sober homes were placed in an area away from the general population. And while at least one was taken to the hospital, others were treated at the school if paramedics could “maintain their airway” until the drug wore off.

“It’s problematic that the sober homes aren’t regulated, so there’s no established communication,” Johnson said. “That kind of communication with hospitals and nursing homes is beneficial, but with sober homes, we are missing that entire piece.”

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