Hurricane Shelters

When orders to evacuate are given and certain areas are unprepared to provide safe shelter for residents, hurricane shelters are opened as refuges and safe havens for residents. Buildings designated as hurricane shelters are expected to provide the safest and most reliable protection during the passage of tropical storms.

What are Hurricane Shelters?

Hurricane shelters are safe locations that the public can utilise in the event of a tropical storm or other disaster. Also known as tropical storm shelters or disaster emergency shelters, hurricane shelters should be seen as viable safe shelter option, especially in situations where you have been instructed to evacuate and have nowhere else to go. Many shelters are opened at a specific time before the weather event, usually in accordance with local evacuation orders.

Emergency shelters are operated by government, local and national disaster management agencies and private agencies including the American Red Cross. The operation of hurricane shelters requires the coordination and cooperation of several parties and also the participation of volunteers to manage the shelter.

Characteristics of Hurricane Shelters

A thorough study by Pine, Marx, Levitan and Wilkins (2003), was a comprehensive assessment of how hurricane shelters in Louisiana fared with the passage of Hurricane Georges, which formed in September 1998. Evaluating shelters was one aspect of the research and the evaluation included shelters that were open and closed during the passage of the hurricane, in zones at risk for varying storm impacts.

The study identified 15 key characteristics which the ideal hurricane shelter should have. Properties designated as hurricane shelters should be outside of the 100 year flood zones; outside of Category 4 storm surge areas based on computer simulations and that hazardous or radioactive materials should be/ were not stored or use in the building, on the compound or within close proximity of the shelter’s location.

Additionally, tropical storm shelters should have minimal lay down hazards (i.e. hazards such as trees or electrical poles or communications that could damage or destroy the structure); limited wind and debris exposure; compliance with the best wind design standards available; a construction profile that includes load bearing walls, hurricane straps on the roof and a continuous load path from the roof to the foundation.

It was also noted that the building should be well maintained and in good condition; exterior walls should be able to withstand winds and debris; fenestrations (windows and doors) should be protected; roofs should be constructed from concrete or a roofing system with engineered mechanical connections; unsupported roof spans should be no longer than 40 feet; roofs should have adequate drainage; and the interior space should have reinforced columns and rooms.

Tropical Storm Shelters in My Area

One of the most poignant conclusions made in the study by Pine et al, was that when residents are urged to evacuate they could be assured that the hurricane shelters are safe places. This also requires that authorities embark on a robust shelter assessment programme to ensure that properties designated as shelters are “the safest locations and the best available sites.”

In many jurisdictions, hurricane shelters are opened in schools, churches, resource centers, auditoriums, government buildings and other properties which are of a high standard of construction. Some of them may have been modified post-construction to meet hurricane building standards to withstand some storms.

For your information and hurricane readiness, you should make a list of the shelters in your area, the category that they fall into (whether they be a low impact or high impact shelter); the name of the shelter; the number of people it can comfortably accommodate; the full address of the shelter and a map of regular and alternate routes to get there; and if that shelter caters to special needs such as evacuees with medical conditions or those with pets.

An expert storm preparedness tip that I’ve seen time and time again is that you should take note of the closest hurricane shelter and next closest shelters that are nearby. In some cases, new shelters may be opened depending on demand and the severity of the impending storm. Always check with your local disaster agency for updated shelter lists and to make sure that your shelter is open before you make your way there.

Shelters in the US

There are several states in the United States of America that could suffer a direct impact from a tropical weather system. The list below includes storm shelters in states along the east, south east and south coasts of the United States. Some of these links will take you to sources that are actively updated when tropical storm activity is expected in the area. Other links will take you to the disaster emergency agency websites that will post emergency shelter openings as they occur. Additionally, you may search the American Red Cross’ shelter map which shows the shelters that are open.

Alabama | Connecticut | Delaware | Florida | Georgia | Louisiana | Massachusetts | Maine | Maryland | Mississippi | New Hampshire | New Jersey | New York | North Carolina | Rhode Island | South Carolina | Texas | Virginia

Shelters in the Caribbean

Each Caribbean island has its own list of hurricane shelters which are governed by the local disaster management agencies. In some countries, shelters are listed in categories. In Barbados, Category 1 shelters are used during a hurricane; whilst Category 2 shelters are used after the weather event, provided they are in good condition.

Click the following links to see the list of emergency shelters or the disaster management agency in each country:

Anguilla | Antigua and Barbuda | Aruba | Bahamas | Barbados | Bermuda | Bonaire | British Virgin Islands | Cayman Islands | Cuba | Curacao | Dominica | Dominican Republic | Grenada | Guadeloupe | Haiti | Jamaica | Martinique | Montserrat | Puerto Rico | Saba | St. Barthelemy | St. Kitts & Nevis | St. Lucia | St. Vincent and the Grenadines | Trinidad and Tobago

Shelters in Central America

Countries in Central America have seen their share of tropical storms and hurricanes. Tropical systems have formed in the Gulf of Mexico and have either kept on a northern track towards the US or an eastern track towards the countries of Central America.

Costa Rica | Belize | Guatemala | Honduras | Mexico | Nicaragua | Panama

Shelters in South America

Although there have not been many tropical storms which have affected the countries on the northern tip of South America, these countries are still at risk for tropical weather systems.

Columbia | French Guiana | Guyana | Suriname | Venezuela

Disaster Emergency Shelters FAQs

As mentioned previously, before you leave your home to go to one of the listed shelter locations, you should confirm that the shelter is open and has enough room for you and your family. The below list of shelter FAQs will assist you as you decide whether a shelter is the safest option for you.

Is my shelter open?

Shelter openings are usually announced on local media news outlets such as the radio and television, disaster management agency websites and also via social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Information many also be disseminated in live press conferences and public announcement meetings.

What should I take to the shelter?

When leaving home to go to a shelter, you should leave with enough supplies to last you for at least four days. In addition to your first aid kit, you should pack the following items for each person of your family:

Is my pet allowed in the shelter?

No. Most public shelters do not allow pets. You should research your area for a list of pet friendly shelters.

Can I smoke inside the shelter?

No. Smoking is prohibited inside of the shelter. Some shelters, at their discretion, may create designated areas for smoking outdoors.

Is alcohol allowed in the shelter?

No. Alcohol is not allowed in the shelter.

Can I bring my gun with me to the shelter?

No. Guns and weapons are not allowed in public shelters.

When can I leave the shelter?

You are always advised to stay in the hurricane shelter until the local authorities have given the all clear for you to return to your home.

Although there is great value in hurricane shelters and the priceless service they provide, they can become overcrowded, can be very noisy and can be extremely uncomfortable. This is especially possible in catastrophic situations where there has been extensive devastation. Conditions may worsen inside the shelter if there is no electricity, little or no ventilation and if there are many people queuing to use washrooms and other facilities.

If your shelter information (including website link) has changed, please contact stormpreppers [at] gmail [dot] com.

References

John C. Pine; Brian D. Marx; Marc L. Levitan; and Daniel Wilkins (2013):  Comprehensive Assessment of Hurricane Shelters: Lessons from Hurricane Georges

Further Reading

Louisiana Emergency Preparedness Guide (Louisiana State Police)
Louisiana Citizen Awareneness and Disaster Evacuation Guide (Louisiana State Police)
Medical Special Needs Shelter in Louisiana (Louisiana Department of Health and & Hospitals)

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