Alachua County is bracing to shelter its most vulnerable residents as hurricane season approaches.
The county opened its special needs registry May 18, according to a county press release. The program provides assistance for residents with medical or physical conditions during emergencies like hurricanes, floods or wildfires.
Residents of all ages with conditions such as visual and hearing impairments, paralysis, cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s are eligible for the program, the release said. Eligible residents can register for the program online. In the event of a weather emergency, registered individuals will be contacted by emergency operations employees to transport them to the shelter.
The special needs program is a joint effort between the Florida Department of Health and Alachua County Emergency Management, said Paul Myers, an administrator at the county health department.
On average, 900 county residents register for the special needs program, Myers said. The shelter will be screened for COVID-19 by taking temperatures and symptoms as well as asking about travel and exposure to the virus.
“Ideally, there would be a separate shelter for COVID-19-positive patients,” he said.
The Alachua County Senior Recreation Center, located at 5701 NW 34th Blvd., was used as the special needs shelter during Hurricane Irma in 2017. It will continue to be used for future weather emergencies.
The county sheltered residents for the longest period of time in the last 30 years during Hurricane Irma, Myers said.
Registered guests must inform county employees if caregivers are accompanying them and if they will be driven to the shelter. Residents without caregivers will receive aid from Florida Department of Health staff.
Volunteers from the Florida Department of Health’s Medical Reserve Corps provide services to support the health of guests in the shelter, Myers said. Volunteers are trained agents of the state and help with individual needs such as taking medications, movement in shelter and personal care.
Although the service is free, only those in need of assistance should apply, said Jen Horner, assistant director of the county’s emergency management. Residents who registered before must re-register to update information. She also said eligible residents should register ahead of time.
“We ask to do it now, ahead of any storms, so we have information and make our planning ahead of time,” Horner said.
Every county in Florida has a special needs registry, Horner said. The shelters should be a last resort option. She encouraged residents to talk to family and caregivers to make a plan.
“The special needs shelter is a lifeboat,” Horner said.
On average, 900 county residents registered for the special needs program.