Officials worry about drug overdoses at hurricane shelters

Published: Updated:
Drug Enforcement Administration / MGN

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) Local officials are raising concerns about drug use at hurricane shelters, saying they aren’t equipped to care for addicts, unaccompanied minors and others with other medical needs.

Nearly 16,000 people in nine counties from Indian River to Miami-Dade evacuated to shelters during Hurricane Matthew. Six evacuees seeking refuge at a Delray Beach high school during Hurricane Matthew overdosed on drugs as the dangerous storm approached South Florida. Bags brought to shelters by evacuees are typically not searched.

In another county, a bus full of teenagers from a residential addiction-treatment center was left at an American Red Cross-run shelter without adult oversight.

“Many of the people from sober homes came with supervision, but some came and were just dropped off,” Delray Beach Fire Rescue Capt. Kevin Saxton, told the Palm Beach Post ( “There were witnesses seeing people shoot up.”

The concerns were raised during the Governor’s Hurricane Conference last week in West Palm Beach. Hurricane Matthew was the state’s first large-scale evacuation since Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

Saxton said some evacuees from sober homes were placed in an area away from the general population. One was taken to the hospital, but others were treated at the school if paramedics could “maintain their airway” until the drug wore off.

In Volusia County, evacuees left shelters while it was still dark outside, even though they were asked to stay by officials wary of downed power lines and broken street lights.

“People wanted out of the shelter, and we couldn’t put a gun to them,” said James Judge, Volusia County emergency-management director.

At one shelter, authorities nabbed two teenagers after finding them on the street skateboarding during the storm. The Red Cross will not take unaccompanied minors and directed them to law enforcement who “deemed they were not baby sitters,” said Charles Parker, senior disaster program manager for the American Red Cross in South Florida.

Florida’s counties handle staffing at shelters differently. Some rely on Red Cross volunteers while others use county employees.

Parker said one of the biggest problems during Matthew was miscommunication between the Red Cross and government officials about what shelters were opening and when.

Hospitals, nursing homes, and health care facilities are legally required to have their evacuation plans approved by county emergency managers so first responders know where those special-needs clients are going during the storm. But sober homes aren’t under the same requirement.

“It is my understanding that some of the sober homes encouraged their clients to go to one of our shelters,” said Bill Johnson, director of Palm Beach County’s Emergency Operations Center. “A shelter is not equipped to be a rehab center. We don’t have that kind of skill set.”

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