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$1.8 million hurricane shelter coming to St. Johns County for people with disabilities

“We need to build something that can house our people. And can protect them during these storms.”

Imagine the added frenzy and anxiety of evacuating during a hurricane for people with severe intellectual and medical challenges.

The unfamiliarity of not knowing where you’re going and the logistics of packing heavy-duty medical equipment is an added stress for clients and staff at The Arc of St. Johns. The Arc provides classes and therapy to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Now, when the next hurricane rolls in, they won’t have to go anywhere thanks to the Safe Harbor Project.

Director of The Arc of St. Johns, Neal Benson, says clients tell him how worried they are when a hurricane strikes.

“One guy said, 'it’s scary dude, I don’t want to be around in that.' He wants to be with the folks that care for him every day.”

Benson said they had to evacuate their facility during hurricanes Irma and Matthew.

“We put everybody [in] a van and got on I-10 heading west," he said. "We got about 60 to 70 miles and it was a parking lot.”

Board member Andy Norman says most shelters get overcrowded and weren't able to accommodate their clients.

“We need to build something that can house our people," Norman said. "And can protect them during these storms.”

That’s where the St. Johns County community stepped in, helping to pay for The Arc’s Safe Harbor shelter and classrooms. The total cost of the shelter will be $1.8 million. The St. Johns County community has donated $1.3 million in six months.

The 6,300-square-foot shelter and classrooms will be located on what is now a wooded corner of The Arc property. It will include five classrooms, two common areas, a kitchen, laundry facilities and medical facilities.

“It’s a multi-purpose facility in that regard that it’s a wonderful classroom facility,” Benson said. 

Classrooms will transform into a shelter during a hurricane, providing the comforts of home and familiar surroundings to clients, and ease in providing care for staff.

“You know how you were worried about [hurricanes Irma and Matthew], think this further, our clients are even more worried and stressed out, and they need a place too," Norman said.

The groundbreaking for the Safe Harbor Project is planned for February of 2020.