Another hurricane season has arrived in Florida and with every approaching tropical storm system I expect to receive at least one call from an ROC manager or board member asking whether the residents can use the community clubhouse as a storm shelter. My answer is consistent although not always popular: Unless the community clubhouse has been certified as a "hurricane evacuation shelter" (which means it meets the safety standards established by the American Red Cross), managers and board members should do everything in their power to discourage the use of the clubhouse or any other community building as a storm shelter.
When a condominium, neighborhood, subdivision, or manufactured housing community is placed under a mandatory evacuation order by Florida’s Governor or county or local authorities, "mandatory" doesn’t mean "I’ll leave if and when it’s convenient" or "I’m not leaving without my dog/cat/bird"–it means that the refusal of that resident to leave the community in spite of being ordered to do so is a crime–a second degree misdemeanor under Florida law. I’m certainly not going to advise any client community to help a resident commit a crime and technically that’s what managers or board members are doing when they give residents a reason to remain in the community once that order is issued by allowing the clubhouse to be used as a gathering place during a storm.
Here’s a partial list of what can go wrong when residents are allowed to use a clubhouse that has not been certified as a hurricane evacuation shelter:
- The hurricane roars through, the clubhouse doesn’t withstand the force of the winds and/or the storm surge, and residents that were using the clubhouse for shelter are injured or killed
- The clubhouse manages to withstand the storm but one of the residents in the clubhouse suffers a stroke or heart attack and dies because the clubhouse had neither the trained personnel nor equipment present to treat that resident and the county’s paramedics were busy dealing with numerous other emergencies or were unable to safely enter the community.
- The hurricane roars through, the clubhouse survives, and everyone is fine until a resident walks outside, and steps on a downed power line in the community and suffers severe injury or death.
The community association’s liability in each of these situations may be substantial and it’s entirely possible that the association’s insurance company will–with good reason–say that its coverage does not protect the association from claims filed because of an injury or death that occurred because the association allowed the clubhouse to be used for a unauthorized and unlawful purpose.
I’ve even suggested that associations padlock the clubhouse when a mandatory evacuation order issues or at the very least post signs in bold letters at every entrance way to the clubhouse and any other community buildings to warn every resident that the building is not a hurricane shelter and that any resident that uses the building for that purpose does so at his or her own risk.
There’s no reason in this day and age for anyone living in Florida to be unprepared for an approaching tropical storm system. Media outlets such as The Weather Channel have almost constant updates when tropical weather threatens our area and the National Hurricane Center provides timely and accurate information that allows all residents to follow and prepare for hurricanes and tropical storms. Almost every local newspaper and television station publishes an annual hurricane special insert that contains suggested preparedness lists, tracking maps, and locations of certified hurricane evacuation shelters. Florida’s laws also provide shelters for residents with pets, and seek to identify residents with "special needs" who may require assistance in evacuating to the appropriate shelter. In short, no resident in a community without a certified hurricane evacuation shelter remain in that community when a mandatory order issues to evacuate that community and no community association should encourage its residents to use the community clubhouse or other community owned building to "ride out the storm."