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Tampa Bay residents brace for Hurricane Irma

By Elizabeth Kramer

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Tampa, FL – Hurricanes are a common experience to most Floridians, especially to residents of the Tampa Bay area, where hurricanes and tropical storms hit or brush by about every two years. However, Category 4 Hurricane Irma, which is now projected to move up the center of the state, is making some of the most seasoned Floridians panic.

Hurricane Irma, which at its peak reached wind speeds of up to 185 miles per hour, could cause four to eight inches of rainfall. For residents on Florida’s west coast this could mean flooding and road closures. This risk is especially high for the poorest areas of Tampa, where drainage is inadequate and most homes are only five to 20 feet above sea level.

A few residents were able to prepare beforehand and are in a better position to face Irma.

“My family started getting things like water, food, flashlights, batteries and stuff like that early. We didn’t have to struggle that much,” said Brandon resident, Genesis De Gracia.

Many Tampa residents do not share this position though. On its own Irma could be catastrophic for central Florida but the threat Irma poses grows far greater as the local, state and federal governments fail to address proper preparation for the rest of its residents.

While helping on a Hurricane hotline yesterday, Jenna Ferreira, a pharmacy technician who works at a critical care hospital in Pasco County, commented, “Hillsborough County’s information on preparedness was much more readily available online than Pasco or Pinellas. People from those counties were calling us to get information. But one of biggest problems in Florida, especially Tampa, is that there's no infrastructure. We don't have much besides the HART buses, which are limited, for public transportation.”

While volunteers have been called upon, there are still a lack of resources available for these volunteers.

“I wish there was more information and training on how to volunteer. For example, the USF Sundome is the largest special needs shelter in Tampa. Its physical capacity is 10,000 but they have a limit of 1000 sheltered people. I assume this is because of a lack of trained staff. You need people who know ventilators and oxygen tanks.” Ferreira continued, “I’ve talked to a lot of elderly and disabled people who were scared. Several hadn't been to the store yet. I wish there was a way they could register and either government employees or volunteers could help them prepare. It breaks my heart, it’s not a fair playing field for them.”

The police of central Florida have proven to be equally unhelpful, and even more harmful. One of the communities that is the most heavily affected by the local government is that of undocumented immigrants.

When emergency centers began opening to dispense sandbags, a precondition was created that demanded residents prove their citizenship before being able to attain the sandbags. Likewise, only U.S. citizens will be allowed to take refuge in the shelters around Tampa.

Nearby Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd stated on his public Twitter account, “If you go to a shelter for Irma, be advised: sworn LEOs will be at every shelter, checking IDs. Sex offenders/predators will not be allowed.” In another tweet he said, “If you go to a shelter for Irma and you have a warrant, we'll gladly escort you to the safe and secure shelter called the Polk County Jail.”

While claiming these identification checks pertain to sex offenders and sexual predators, the recent dissolution of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and increased attacks on undocumented people all over the country point to these checks being concerned with finding and expelling undocumented people, not protecting other residents. These tweets also indicate a carefree attitude on the part of the police towards the lives of residents, as a sheriff jokes about the Polk County Jail being a shelter.

This is the nature of disaster under our current system. The state and federal governments have proven this by their relative inaction and their priority of arresting people instead of protecting them. After the devastation in Houston by Hurricane Harvey, a lack of preparation is inexcusable on the part of the government.

Unlike the wealthy of Tampa, many people in poor communities have had no choice but to sit and wait as the highways fill, and gas and airline prices are gouged. Due to material shortages, these same people often do not have access to the materials necessary to fortify their homes or stock up before the hurricane. This situation serves as a reminder that under the current system groups like undocumented, low-income, African-American, elderly and disabled people, will never be safe. Rather, the people united can end that system and create a new one that ensures the safety and protection of all.

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