As Hurricane Irma barreled down on his state, a county sheriff in Florida said on Wednesday that law enforcement authorities would check the identities of people who turn up at shelters and take to jail anyone found to have an active arrest warrant.
“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,” Grady Judd, the sheriff in Polk County, announced in a series of messages on Twitter.
“We cannot and we will not have innocent children in a shelter with sexual offenders & predators,” the sheriff said, adding law enforcement officers would be posted at shelters to check IDs.
“If you have a warrant, turn yourself into the jail — it’s a secure shelter.”
The sheriff’s office made the announcements as residents of Florida on Wednesday stocked up or made preparations to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Irma, which on Wednesday battered the northeast Caribbean and was moving on to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
According to most of the latest projections, the Category 5 hurricane could make landfall in Florida by Sunday, although it was unclear where exactly that might happen. But the state is already bracing for impact. On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott activated the state National Guard and declared a state of emergency across the state.
Polk County, in Central Florida, has a population of more than 600,000 people. There are 47 public shelters in the county, but they have not yet been opened to accept hurricane evacuees.
The practices of law enforcement officials and immigration authorities during life-threatening storms have frequently come under scrutiny, as happened during Hurricane Harvey in Texas and in 2012 during Hurricane Isaac in Louisiana.
The Polk County sheriff’s announcement that the authorities would use the hurricane as an opportunity for arrests drew criticism online, leading some to question just how far the checks would go, such as whether Sheriff Judd would jail those wanted on traffic or drug charges, The Orlando Sentinel reported.
A spokeswoman for the sheriff, Carrie E. Horstman, told the newspaper that the authorities hoped the effort would encourage turnout at shelters if county residents know they are safe, Ms. Horstman said. “We hope it actually leads to more people turning themselves in,” she said.