CHIPLEY - As the anniversary of one of the nation's most catastrophic hurricanes near, Washington County is eyeing the construction of a new complex that will change the course of disaster response for the entire Panhandle.
At a proposed capacity between 2,000 and 3,000 people, county officials say the Northwest Florida Disaster Center will serve and support counties throughout the region, as well as people under evacuation orders from other parts of the state.
"We're approaching this from a regional approach," said Washington County Manager Jeff Massey. "All counties in the Panhandle support this because they understand if they take a hit in Pensacola, they have a shelter here; the same for Tallahassee."
The county is currently looking at a location on I-10 and State Road 77. The center is described as being a centralized location for a regional staging area for utility and power companies that could service as west as southeastern Mississippi to much of lower Alabama.
"We'll have (a single) area for people to come in and stage for the state, and it will be regional," said Washington County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Tray Hawkins.
"Every one of them we have presented our idea to thought it was an outstanding idea. Our adjacent counties have been very supportive about it," he added. "It will not only benefit us, it will benefit their constituents in their respective areas."
The center will be a distribution point for supplies, such as ice, tarps, etc.
In addition to disaster response, the center will house all of the county offices from Supervisor of Elections and county headquarters to forestry and UF/IFAS, and serve as a venue for events, such as graduations and other community functions.
"It's no secret that the Ag center is in poor shape and we really have no idea of how to go about fixing it," Hawkins said. "But this will also taking the place of that."
Hawkins said by closing the other offices and consolidating them at the proposed center, the county will be able to offset associated operational costs.
The county will seek out federal and state funding for construction and maintenance of the center. According to Hawkins, state representatives have been supportive of the proposal.
"We're going after every funding source we can possibly get to make it happen," Hawkins said, recalling Katrina survivors that sought refuge in the northwest Florida region.
The county is in its early architectural stages and have yet to come up with an exact cost for the entire project.
However, whatever the cost, Massey said it will take a regional commitment to get the funding.
"We all have to stick together and stay behind it to get the funding we need," Massey said.