Hillsborough County is seeking an $81,000 federal grant to build a barrier around the Sun Dome to protect it during a hurricane and storms with major wind gusts, according to Eugene Henry, the county's hazard mitigation manager.
The University of South Florida's Sun Dome often conjures images of music performances, stage plays or sporting events. But it also is the county's primary special needs shelter during natural disasters.
In 2012, Tropical Storm Debby pounded much of the Tampa Bay area, including Hillsborough County. While the Sun Dome did not have to be opened as a special needs shelter, the county has applied for federal dollars that will make the shelter even safer if they were to need it.
Special Needs shelters are for the county's most vulnerable residents, from people in wheelchairs to those on dialysis or with feeding tubes, said Ryan Pedigo, who heads Public Heath Preparedness for the county Health Department.
"You can't stop a hurricane from coming, you can't prevent the damage," Pedigo said. "But you can make your life easier with preparation and you can ensure your survival."
When the shelter is activated, the floor of the Sun Dome is basically turned into a medical staging area with oxygen lines running down between each row of cots. Medical staff and emergency respondents are on site to assist patients and administer medications.
"We're doing everything we can to make it as safe as possible for the most vulnerable in our community," said Preston Cook, Hillsborough County's Director of Emergency Management.
The operation of the county's special needs shelters are highly dependent on a well-organized registry of about 4,000 residents who need special assistance during natural disasters.
The registry is maintained by the health department, which reviews each applicant and deems whether they fit the state's guidelines for eligibility.
The health department began managing the special needs shelter registry in 2004. Each year people who have registered are re-certified.
"If they register with us, we send out a short form registration in March," Pedigo said. "We ask them if they still need the shelter, or if there's been any change in their condition."
When a natural disaster is approaching, the county's special needs shelters are often opened a day or two before the general population shelters. The last time the shelter opened was in 2008 due to Tropical Storm Faye.
"You've got to transport patients there and that takes a lot of time," Pedigo said.
Each preregistered person is contacted in the event of an emergency. The county's HART buses, Sunshine Line and school district assist with the transportation, Pedigo said.
At the Sun Dome, maintenance staff are busy setting up cots, organizing medical supplies, stocking fuel for generators, and organizing food deliveries.
The county's special needs shelter registry is essential to the planning.
"From our planning standpoint, we need to know how much food to order, how many cots to set up which medications to have," Pedigo said. "We have to prepare and that's why it's so important."
Are you a South Tampa resident with special needs? To register for Hillsborough County's Special Needs Shelter download a form at hillscountyhealth.org under the heading Special Needs Shelter Program. Print and complete form. Return the form to the health department by mail to PO Box 5135, Tampa, FL 33675 or fax to 813-276-8689. To request a form, call the special needs shelter hotline at 813-307-8063.
Follow these tips for natural disaster preparation:
1. Always get medicine prescriptions filled prior to direct impact of natural disasters. If that means calling in an extra refill, do so. It's better to have important prescriptions before a storm hits.
2. Have a plan to take shelter. The best place to shelter is at your home if it's safe or at a friends house if it's safe. A shelter should be last resort.
3. Make sure your family members or friends know where you are.