July 30, 2021

New emergency storm shelter under construction in Babcock Ranch

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

by Samantha Serbin
5:03 AM EDT, Fri July 30, 2021

CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Fla. – A new shelter broke ground in Charlotte County as the peak of hurricane season approaches. Babcock Ranch includes the shelter within its new high school.

By the next hurricane season officials at Babcock Ranch said there will be a shelter for about 1,300 people.

The lack of shelters is the reason, Babcock Ranch is building a new one. The 40,000 square foot facility is scheduled to open next summer.

“It’s a state shelter,” Laura Keller from Babcock Ranch said. “It will be open to residents that are in evacuation zones, so it will serve the greater community really outside of Babcock Ranch. Really the four-county area, Charlotte, Lee, Desoto, Hendry is who we anticipate would be the closest.”

In 2019, the state allocated $8 million for the Southwest Florida Regional Shelter. Intentions were to build a 70,000 square foot facility to host 2,500 people.

“Originally it was going to be a larger facility with other partners,” Keller said. “Then when the pandemic came, other partners couldn’t commit. We still had the grant from the state, we wanted to utilize that money, so we had to pivot,” Keller said.

“I guess what’s now proposed is 1,300 evacuees. It was originally 2,500,” Charlotte County Commissioner Joseph Tiseo said Tuesday.

Tiseo said there are a number of issues that need to be addressed.

“There have been no public hearings, no public meetings, no county staff review, no coordination with the participating counties that it’s supposed to serve,” he said.

Desoto County leaders confirm they have not been contacted. and in Lee County, leaders said they didn’t feel they needed to be consulted on the project since they are not financially contributing to the shelter. Hendry County leaders have not commented yet.

Babcock Ranch officials said their first agreement was with the state, with the idea being connecting with local governments as the project goes.

One big question is who will operate the shelter: The Red Cross or local emergency management offices? Tiseo said years ago the pitch was that the shelter is a Red Cross-approved one.

“This has not been vetted or approved by the red cross as a red cross approved or certified shelter,” Tiseo said.

“We’d like the red cross to operate it, but we have to figure out – our team is working to get together to figure out how it will operate and there will be some agreements that will be required with the surrounding counties on how that will be activated as a shelter,” Keller said.

Another issue Tiseo has with the project is flooding on SR 31.

“So, I have a real issue with sending the most vulnerable among us to a place that historically floods in the time of an emergency,” Tiseo said.

“We are built at a generally 20-25 foot elevation, we’re off the coast so we feel like we’re a good location for a shelter because of our location,” Keller said.

You can read more on Babcock Ranch’s storm safety here.

This would make the fifth general population and second special needs shelter within Charlotte County boundaries. You can view Lee County shelters here.

Commissioner Tiseo is speaking out against the shelter, saying the Charlotte County board had no role in this project and has not vetted the location. However, in the 2019 state legislative agenda you can see listed under the public safety section, it reads the board supports efforts to build or increase emergency shelters in Charlotte County and Southwest Florida.