TARPON SPRINGS — For several decades, Tarpon Springs Middle School has served as the city’s lone hurricane shelter.
But following a recent decision by the Pinellas County Emergency Management Department, the school at 501 N. Florida Ave. will no longer serve as a safe haven for those residents looking to seek shelter from a severe storm.
According to a letter sent by department director Cathie Perkins to Tarpon Springs Fire Chief Scott Young in early June, “Tarpon Springs Middle School is located in an area of anticipated storm surge at a category 3 or higher storm,” and the location “is surrounded by even lower lying areas that would be inundated with storm surge from a category 1 or 2 hurricane.”
As a result of these recent findings, the department decided to remove school as a shelter for the 2020 season, leaving local officials disappointed about the last-minute decision.
“I’ve been here 31 years and this school has always been a shelter,” Young told city commissioners when the item was addressed June 9. “But new data shows a high probability this school would be underwater in a storm.
“We’re not happy about it, but they control the shelters in the county, and we don’t have a say on that.”
Young noted three shelters in Palm Harbor — Palm Harbor High, Palm Harbor Middle and Carwise Middle — were designated as alternatives for Tarpon residents to use during severe storms, but he acknowledged, “it’s going to be a big change, because if residents cannot go to Tarpon Middle, they may not want to leave their homes and they may try to ride out the storm and we really don’t want that to happen.”
The news was met with disappointment from the commission.
“The hurricane season began June 1st, nine days ago, and this is the first time we heard that the middle school would not be a hurricane shelter any longer,” Mayor Chris Alahouzos said, adding, “I understand the decision was made in the best interest of safety, but my concern is how we’re going to notify and how we’re going to convince the elderly to go to the shelter in Palm Harbor. It’s so far away for them to do that, and will there be transportation to do that?”
Young said the city has a list of roughly 300 citizens with special needs during storms and staff was going to reach out to all of them about the change. He added the county will provide school buses to transport residents to the other shelters, including a special needs shelter in Dunedin they’ve used in the past. He also said they would use a variety of methods to inform the public of the change, including the city’s website, social media platforms and utility bill mailings.
“I am a little disappointed in the county,” Vice-Mayor Jacob Karr said. “It’s apparent that the county EOC could care less about Tarpon Springs, I believe.”
Karr said he sent an email to the county commissioners “expressing the need to have a shelter in Tarpon Springs,” and he suggested several alternative options, including the St. Pete College campus on Klosterman Road as well as the United Methodist Church on East Tarpon Avenue, and Young said he was looking into the feasibility of alternate sites in town.
Commissioner Townsend Tarapani stated, “I also share my disappointment with the last-minute switch on us regarding our storm shelter. I think as a community that has more waterfront than anywhere in Pinellas County you would think that they wouldn’t leave us without a shelter.”
Tarapani said he would “urge the fire chief and our staff in general to not settle for this and going into the next hurricane season have a better option and work with the county to mandate that we have a storm shelter in Tarpon Springs.”
After the meeting, Alahouzos reiterated his disappointment in the county’s decision.
“I understand that the decision was made for safety, but I’m disappointed they waited until the last minute to let us know,” he said, adding he was “concerned with how we’re going to get the word out to our elderly population. I know the new data says if we get a strong hurricane, we’re not going to be safe there, but I can’t believe we didn’t get more advance notice.”