DADE CITY — Pasco commissioners fear that a Hurricane Irma emergency nutrition program could overrun the Land O'Lakes Recreation Center and the surrounding road network in central Pasco.
On Tuesday, the Florida Department of Children and Families asked commissioners for permission to use the recreation center off Collier Parkway to sign up residents for the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Commissioners, leery of a repeat of the crowds that snarled traffic at a baseball stadium in Plant City on Monday, suggested an alternative site — the vacant retail property that formerly housed a Super Target store at State Road 54 and the Suncoast Parkway in Lutz.
The county used that building as a staging area for utility and emergency services workers and the Florida National Guard, and as a collection site for donated food supplies, after the hurricane. However, that 30-day lease has expired, and the owner told the county Tuesday afternoon he couldn't commit to hosting the relief program because of planned building repairs.
DCF said it needs a location from Oct. 18 to 27, with the event open to the public from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 22 to 25.
A DCF representative told commissioners that as many as 82,000 people could be served at the Land O' Lakes location over the four days it is open to the public. Later, Natalie Harrell, DCF's regional spokesperson, told the Tampa Bay Times in an email that the department anticipated the Pasco effort would aid 6,500 to 8,000 households each day.
The recreation center is about a mile north of State Road 54 on four-lane Collier Parkway, a heavily traveled north-south road serving the commuting workforce from abutting neighborhoods, plus motorists headed to two nearby schools, three preschools and a public library branch.
"I can't imagine what the (State Road 54-U.S. 41) intersection is going to look like,'' said Commissioner Kathryn Starkey. "It's just going to show we don't have a (road) grid in the county.''
Commissioner Mike Moore said he worried that parking for the relief effort would become problematic as youth sports activities begin in the early evening hours before the nutrition program finishes each day. DCF said employees would park at the vacant Kmart store on SR 54 and be shuttled to the recreation center, and sheriff's deputies would be on hand for traffic and crowd control.
Eventually, commissioners acquiesced and agreed that the program would be at the recreation center.
The concerns came a day after an unexpectedly large turnout in Plant City, where officials expected 20,000 applicants, but processed 31,000 families before the end of the day Monday. Some people said they waited in traffic for two hours to get to the stadium. Traffic problems also were reported for the Pinellas County site in Seminole when the state processed nearly 30,000 applications from Sept. 27 to Oct. 2.
The program, called Food for Florida, is a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is operating in 48 counties declared federal disaster areas. The D-SNAP benefits compensate applicants for losses incurred between Sept. 5 and Oct. 4 and is intended as a one-time financial boost to low-income families not already receiving food stamps. Qualifying Irma-related losses include food or income, temporary shelter expenses or damage to homes.
The two-month potential payout for those who qualify ranges from about $400 for a single person to about $1,850 for a family of six.
Under the program, DCF provides benefit debit cards to use at authorized food retailers. Individuals are encouraged to fill out the application online at least one day before visiting the Food for Florida location. For an application, visit dcf.state.fl.us/programs/access/fff/benefit.shtml.