It was the day after Hurricane Irma, and two residents of a mobile home park in Lakeland, Florida, sat on their porch, on a street littered with debris. The wind had torn off the roof of a nearby trailer and flooded the adjoining streets.
Their park had been under mandatory evacuation, but evacuating to a shelter wasn’t an option for the men. Both were registered sex offenders, and the sheriff for Polk County, which includes Lakeland, had made it clear in a series of tweets that grabbed national attention that they’d be turned away at the door. (He’d also promised to arrest anyone who showed up with an outstanding warrant.)
Florida is state with a disproportionately high population of sex offenders, and local governments seemed to struggle during Irma with where exactly to put them. While Florida law does not prohibit sex offenders and predators from residing in certain areas, county laws can go further. In Polk County, sex offenders and predators cannot live within 2,500 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds, day cares or public libraries.
After the sheriff’s tweets went viral, Polk County offered up an administrative building at the county jail, where the two residents said they spent the night.
Another Florida county, Pasco, in east-central Florida, established a separate building at a school-turned-shelter as refuge. If sex offenders showed up at a high school that had become a hurricane shelter, they were told they could go to a separate building nearby. The county told local reporters that they had established the plan six months before.
A third, Gadsden, in northern Florida, warned some sex offenders they couldn’t go to shelters but offered them nowhere else to go.
That county took to its Facebook page to tell sex offenders currently under supervision that they could seek shelter at a county corrections facility. But a county spokesman confirmed that it did not offer any refuge for those not under supervision, or for those classified as sexual predators.
Sex offenders present authorities with a unique set of problems during hurricanes, especially in Florida, where many live in vulnerable mobile home parks due to the restrictions on living near schools or parks, and because some residents don’t want them admitted to shelters.
In the lead up to the storm, local news stations interviewed mothers who said they wouldn’t go to a shelter where sex offenders were allowed. But at the same time, the Polk County sheriff’s warnings sparked national outrage and a lawsuit that said such checks were unconstitutional.
That did not dissuade Polk County from continuing to conduct checks at the door. At a school-turned-hurricane shelter in Lakeland Sunday, there were as many officers present as evacuees, and they were checking IDs and for criminal history.
A spokeswoman for the Polk County sheriff’s office said no one with a warrant actually showed up at a shelter seeking refuge from Irma. But two registered sex offenders did — and were turned away and told to go to the jail instead.
In total, 43 sex offenders took shelter in the jail administrative building, she said.
“We’ve always done this. We’ve always checked for sexual offenders and predators during hurricanes,” the spokeswoman, Carrie Horstman, said in defense of the practice. “Three hurricanes hit Polk County in 2004. It was the standard back then, and it’s the standard now.”
(A sexual predator is a more serious designation than a sexual offender in Florida for those convicted of a first or second-degree felony sex crime.)
Mario Williams, a civil rights lawyer who has taken on the suit against Polk County over its criminal checks at shelters, said offering a county jail or separate shelter to sex offenders does not change the illegality of criminal checks.
“That’s good they’re getting shelter… They’re human beings,” he said. “But it doesn’t change the fact that you have used an emergency situation as an excuse to set up unconstitutional pedestrian checkpoints.”
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories reported from Florida during Hurricane Irma. Read more below: