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The Tampa Bay area is short on hurricane shelter space

When it comes to sheltering during a storm, local leaders urge people to use hurricane shelters as a last resort since space is limited.

TAMPA, Fla. — Hurricane season is less than a month away, and some predictions show Florida could be in for a busy storm season.

10 Tampa Bay found out the Tampa Bay area is short on shelter space. Tampa Bay emergency officials explained people need to have a plan in place, and a shelter should be their last resort.

In Pinellas County, the director of emergency management said the area's growing population is contributing to the shelter space issue.

“Our shelter space is OK, I’m not going to say it’s great," said Cathie Perkins, the director of emergency management in Pinellas County.

The Tampa Bay area has experienced a population boom, a housing crisis and on top of that, officials explain during a storm, not all shelters can always open. 

"Storm surge, we will actually lose some of those shelters," Perkins said.

In Pinellas County there are a total of 32 shelters. 

The census reports in 2020, there were 959,107 people living in Pinellas County.

Pinellas emergency officials said all 32 shelters can hold 64,554 people for a category 5 hurricane. That means there isn't space for everyone in a county shelter. To be exact and do the math, that leaves 894,553 people without a space at a shelter. That's why officials urge people to find another space to go during a storm.

"If you do need to evacuate you should see if you can stay with a family or friends, your business, a faith-based group," Perkins explained. 

Emergency officials stressed shelters should be your last resort. Regardless, if you show up to a shelter, they won't turn you away.

In Hillsborough County, the census reports there were 1,459,762 people living in the county in 2020.

Hillsborough County has 55 shelters for people to stay in. Emergency management officials didn't provide the number of people that holds.

If you compare the math to Pinellas County, that’s likely not enough space for 1,459,762 people.

Hillsborough County emergency management officials said the deficit is when it comes to special needs shelters. That's because there are special requirements that are necessary. 

Tampa Bay area emergency officials stated they are always looking for ways to expand shelter space.

"We recently just had a workshop with the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and they look at those studies projecting all the way into 2050 about what population will look like. They compare that with what we think is going to happen with the sea level rise," explained Katja Miller, an emergency management official in Hillsborough County.

Pinellas County has expanded the shelter space for this year. The below chart provided by Pinellas County officials shows how the capacity grows along with the population. 

Credit: Pinellas County EOC

Hurricane shelters are generally at schools. Both Pinellas and Hillsborough officials said they are working with school and county officials to expand their space.

“We are in conversations with some schools and looking at some other schools that aren’t currently on our shelter list. In future years, if we can work with them on mitigation projects that we can get them on the list," Perkins explained. 

Despite the scarce shelter space, emergency officials want to again remind people a person would never be turned away from staying safe in a shelter.

“If we have to reduce out square footage to get everyone into the shelters for the storm we will do that because we want to make sure everyone’s safe for the storm," Perkins said.

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