The construction of new public schools across Florida has contributed to a significant increase in the number of hurricane shelter spaces, according to a plan approved Tuesday by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet.
The Division of Emergency Management presented its updated statewide emergency plan to the cabinet at a meeting held at a Florida Keys elementary school.
A combination of hurricane shelter surveys, retrofitting existing schools and building new schools to meet shelter design criteria has created more than 939,000 public shelter spaces over the last 12 years, emergency management officials said. More than half of those spaces were created through the construction of new public schools.
Statewide, 37 counties now have a surplus of shelter spaces for the general population and people with special needs, officials said. Those counties include Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Brevard and Orange counties, along with counties in Florida's Panhandle.
Southwestern Florida continues to have a shortage of shelter spaces because of its vulnerability to storm surge, officials said.
Sitting behind child-drawn posters with the slogans "Be Safe" and "Get Ready," Scott reminded residents that this year is the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew making landfall as a Category 5 storm. The six-month Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1.
"Hurricane Andrew should be a reminder to all Floridians that preparing for hurricane season is crucial," Scott said.
Florida's emergency management chief, Bryan Koon, said Monroe County, which encompasses the Keys island chain, is the most vulnerable county in both the state and the country.
The other members of the Florida Cabinet are Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi.
The cabinet also approved bonds to pay for the construction of new dormitories at Florida International University, the University of Florida and Florida A&M. The members also approved allocating $50 million for the construction of sewage collection, treatment and disposal facilities in the Keys.
Scott said the meeting at Stanley Switlik Elementary School in Marathon was the cabinet's first ever at a school. Scott listened to students' presentations on boat safety, hurricane hazards and the upcoming Memorial Day holiday before touring several classrooms.
Later Tuesday, Scott sat on the deck of a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boat, pouring handfuls of water over a rehabilitated sea turtle in a plastic bin. More than 2.5 miles off the coast of Marathon, Scott and Richie Moretti, founder of The Turtle Hospital, helped the green sea turtle slide into the Gulf of Mexico.
Green sea turtles are an endangered species. A fisherman brought the 30-pound turtle, Sass, to the hospital in September after a softball-sized tumor on one of its back flippers got caught in a rope, Moretti said.