Finally, some positive news on the shelter front

Sarasota County still has no firm plan to put a hurricane shelter in Venice but the prospect of having one closer than North Port or Sarasota has improved.

Just not for this season.

And maybe not on the Sarasota Memorial Hospital-Venice campus.

As Hurricane Irma approached in 2017, anyone looking on the county website would have seen that both the Venice Community Center, on the island, and Taylor Ranch Elementary School, in South Venice, were listed as shelters. However, the county declined to open either, saying they were at risk of damage from wind and storm surge.

That meant the options for Venice-area residents were traveling to Sarasota or North Port or sheltering in place with a Category 5 hurricane drawing a bead on the area.

Mayor John Holic accepted the liability of opening the Community Center and about 400 people took refuge there.

Afterward, the county acknowledged that there needs to be a shelter — or two — in the Venice area.

The county brought in experts to do an after-event study and addressed many of the issues it raised but it wasn’t until Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH) unveiled the plans for its Venice facility that a specific shelter site was identified.

SMH said it would offer land for one on its campus at the southeast corner of Laurel and Pinebrook roads, with the county and the city to be responsible for getting it built. But as the City Council learned Tuesday from County Commission Chair Charles Hines, the deal SMH wants may be too much for the county to swallow.

According to a May 13 memo from Rich Collins, director of Emergency Services, the county has set aside $3 million toward the project but it has an estimated cost of $12 million-$14 million and SMH is standing firm on only contributing a construction-ready site.

Further, he wrote, SMH wants to own the building and lease it to the county in emergencies, and limit its other uses to meetings, symposiums and such. The county, he wrote, would like to be able to use it to meet other community needs, such as for sports and recreation facilities.

The two sides are continuing to talk, he wrote, but unless they can resolve these differences “it is recommended to notify SMH that the County will seek other options for a Hurricane Evacuation Center.”

Fortunately, there already is another option: Taylor Ranch.

At an elevation of 18 feet, Collins wrote, the school qualifies for $455,000 in state funding to be retrofitted for hurricane hardening. It would still be vulnerable to a storm surge greater than 20 feet but “in the absence of a catastrophic storm surge” it could open along with the other shelters.

Assuming the County Commission and the School Board approve and the state grants the money, the school could be a shelter next year, more than a year earlier than one on the SMH-Venice campus. And it would add an estimated 1,280 spaces to the county’s shelter inventory — 280 more than at SMH.

In the meantime, county staff continues to review other potential sites for a multi-use building that could be opened as needed as a shelter, he wrote, because more uses means more possible funding sources.

Options are limited in Mid and South County, however, because of low elevations, he wrote. Wellfield Park, for example, a site Mayor John Holic suggested, is only 12-13 feet above sea level and “without extensive mitigation would not work for this purpose,” Collins wrote.

So, Venice-area residents, take heart. Even though there’s no local shelter this season, the county’s evacuation processes have been improved and there’s a good chance of having one next year, and maybe another one in progress.

With luck, that will be soon enough. Without luck, be prepared to travel or hunker down.

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