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Postcards From South Florida Shelters In The Hours Before Hurricane Irma Arrived

The following is a collection of dispatches from WLRN reporters staying at shelters in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, which by 6 p.m. on Saturday were hosting almost 45,000 people (15,000 in Broward and more than 29,000 in Miami-Dade), as well as about 1,000 pets. 

Morning traffic

Saturday morning at the Falcon Cove Middle School shelter in Weston, sink space was coveted.

There was a weak stream of water coming from the faucet to brush your teeth or wash your face after sleeping on the aged-yellow gym floor or the tile of the cafeteria. People sleeping on the floor or on air mattresses in the hallway were privy to the constant flow of people in and out of the the locker rooms.

Photographs of the Falcon’s baseball, volleyball and soccer teams line the walls above families lounging, playing Monopoly and Uno. In one awards case, there is the trophy for winning the 2017 Volleyball Division Championship, an award for winning 2nd place in the 2015 Girls regional track meet and dozens of others shiny recognitions.

Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN News
Breakfast tray at Falcon Cove Middle School in Weston.

Another trophy case has become the repository of McDonalds meals, Domino’s Pizza and Dunkin Donuts coffee, all piled on top of another, waiting for the Broward County Sheriff’s deputies who have been sleeping at the shelter since Wednesday. They’ve been registering people to stay at the shelter, fielding questions about medications left behind, whether pets will be allowed in in an emergency and whether people can go home before the weather gets bad.

Breakfast had options: Chex, Lucky Charms, or yogurt with two biscuits and either an apple or orange. There milk was a choice of regular or chocolate. It came on Styrofoam tray, adding to the surreal experience of being back in a middle school again — a place probably many hoped never to return.

Long night, no cots

Friday night was a long night for most of the evacuees staying at the Miami Edison Senior High School shelter, who tried to make the best of the fact that there were no cots available for them to sleep. 

"I wish there were cots for everybody," said Sandro Manetzeder, from Miami Beach. "The student-sized dinners were a little small, but I am glad to have food so I am not going to complain."

Manetzeder commented on the good spirit of the school staff, who opened their doors to the evacuees and have made many efforts to accommodate the crowd. "I feel calm and prepared because I am in a shelter." 

In and out of the field

After the winds had picked up a bit, with the kind of heavy humidity that feels foreign even in a place like South Florida, the children staying at the Falcon Cove Middle School shelter went outside. They ran around, kicked a soccer ball and talked with family at blue metal picnic tables. That is until the rain started coming down and people moved inside. Then they slowly trickled back out when it stops, to escape the crowded shelter.

Who can jump higher? 

There are almost 500 people staying at Miami Edison Senior High School in Miami and many of them decided to spend the last hours of relatively good weather at the outdoor courtyard. 

Children and adults pet and fed a stray pregnant dog through the red fence. Other sat around the picnic tables exchanging stories and wishing Hurricane Irma away. 

Some others chose to spend energy exercising. There was a man using one of the picnic tables to do pushups. And it wasn't long before the kids started to run around the courtyard, in an animated competition to see how high they could jump and touch a wall. 

The Shelter Song

It was the kids who really broke the silence and tension in the shelter.

Kids found other kids and joined hands and sang singing things only kids can come up with like “teacher time” and a brilliant new track called “shelter,” where they just chant “shelter” over and over again while jumping up and down. Their shimmying seemed at home in the dance classroom where they played, accompanied by a poster of the Alvin Ailey dance company and a list of the elements of dance.

"I saw the trees like blowing down it like blowing away, up in the sky”

It's school without the boredom, according to 6-year-old Semaja Davis, one of the Broward residents staying at the Falcon Cove Middle School shelter.

“I’m excited,” she said, joking about swimming in the water left behind by the hurricane before doing an about face when she considered with the possibility of alligators sharing her lanes. “I don’t want nobody to go outside when it’s time for the hurricane,” she added.

Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN News
Shanoria Davis, 7 years old, is staying with her family at Falcon Cove Middle School in Broward County.

Semaja came with her mom and three of her sisters to the shelter on one of the emergency buses.

“We got here at the last minute,” her mother Shunita Davis said with a sign of relief. They got here Friday night after being turned away from three other shelters at capacity. “I got off the bus with a lot of people, but because I was the only one that had kids, they let me in the shelter and everybody else had to get back on the bus.”

Shanoria Davis is a year older than her sister, but was a lot more nervous.

“The hurricane is coming and it's going to blow the roof off and I saw the trees like blowing down it like blowing away, up in the sky,” 7-year-old Shenoria said, recounting footage she saw of Irma on TV.

"I feel Very Safe Here"

Helen Nemeth refused to stay anywhere near the ocean, at her apartment or with her daughter at their home when the storm hit. All she can think about was the destruction she witnessed after Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

“I feel very safe here,” Nemeth said. She had improvised a reclining bed out of a beach chair and pillow instead of the more popular blow-up mattress. “Wilma was not as bad of a hurricane as this one is going to be,” she said surrounded by boxes and bags of water and food.

“But the aftermath of Wilma was very bad. We didn’t have electricity for three weeks, water for the first week. We had to go to the park and pick up water. Telephones were out for four weeks, Internet was six weeks ... The aftermath was worse than the storm.”

Last minute change of plans

People stepped outside to smoke and get the last bit of fresh air before the doors close at 4 p.m., the countywide curfew for Broward County. Some people who felt like they could weather the storm out packed up and went home.

Among those who left: Kayla Evans and her family, who headed out of the shelter to a hotel they managed to book in Palm Beach. They were trying to get there before the county curfew started at 3 pm. She and her husband are on the relief crew for a city water and sewage crew, so they will have to work as soon as the Irma passes.

Throw back to school days

Dinner time couldn't come fast enough for people who were staying at Miami Edison Senior High. Some would say people were "hangry" (a mix of hunger and anger), wondering why they had to stay cooped up when there were barely any signs of Hurricane Irma.  Minutes after the call came, at 5:30 p.m., the line for the cafeteria went out of the main entrance.

Everybody who wanted food was able to get one entree, two sides and juice or milk. Options for entrees were a turkey sandwich, pizza bagels or pepperoni pizza. Sides were rice, carrots or broccoli with ranch dressing. The choice for a drink was either juice or milk. 

Forgotten in the dinner rush was a bouquet of wildflowers, left on one of the courtyard's picnic tables. A slice of beauty before the storm. 

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