When Escaping a Hurricane Means Risking Jail

THE ATLANTIC, 07 SEPTEMBER 2017, FEAT. PROF. SETH STOUGHTON

The Polk County Sheriff’s Department in Florida sent out a stark warning to residents this week as Hurricane Irma churns toward the peninsula: Some of those seeking aid at local shelters could face jail instead—or be barred altogether.

“If you go to a shelter for #Irma and you have a warrant, we’ll gladly escort you to the safe and secure shelter called the Polk County Jail,” the department wrote on Twitter Wednesday. Minutes earlier, the account had warned that officers would be stationed at every shelter and that “sex offenders/predators” would not be allowed in.

It was a striking message for a law-enforcement agency to deliver as a potentially cataclysmic disaster nears: that whether a person can seek refuge in an evacuation shelter depends on his or her criminal status. Not only could the department’s policy put residents’ safety in severe jeopardy—if they avoid shelters as a result, or are turned away—but the tweets effectively divide the community into those who are worth saving and those who aren’t.

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