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Spend A Day With Heroes Hunkered Down At Broward EOC

As Hurricane Irma’s dangerous eye wall neared South Florida early Sunday morning, groggy emergency-management workers in Broward County prepared to start the 6 a.m. shift.

Women wary of yellow-tinted water coming out of the faucets brushed their teeth with Dasani and applied make up in the communal bathroom. In the cafeteria, some sat quietly eating roasted potatoes and bacon and mixing cream into their coffee, while others laughed boisterously, the morning shift workers seemingly experiencing a mix of exhaustion and delirium.

A few hundred people are stationed here at the Emergency Operations Center in Plantation, working in rotations and sleeping anywhere they can: reclined in their desk chairs, lined up along hallways, surrounding the podium where Mayor Barbara Sharief has briefed reporters about storm preparation in recent days.

Around the clock, they’ve tracked Irma’s path on radar and coordinated help for residents dialing into crisis hotlines, splitting their attention between the computers on their desks and the televisions hung around them on the walls of the massive operations center. Now they’ve been locked in for 24 hours, some with family members alongside, others wondering how their loved ones have fared outside the fortress’ walls.

Evelyn Barnes, who has worked in food service for the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center for 12 years, has been posted here since early Thursday, distributing hot meals to law enforcement and emergency response planners. Her two adult daughters are at her apartment in Pompano Beach, and her adult son fled north to Georgia, motivated by fear-tinged memories of Hurricane Andrew’s devastation a quarter century ago.

“I am feeling real safe here, but I’m worried about my family, my kids. I just want everybody to be safe,” Barnes said.

 Barnes said she felt confident her daughters had the supplies they needed to get through the storm at home. But she was anxious because she hadn’t heard from them since early Sunday morning.

“They prepared. They got food. They got everything,” she said. “But I don’t know whether they got lights because I can’t get in touch with them now. But I just pray that they all right and safe.”

 She said her son was 13 when Andrew hit. “He left Fort Lauderdale to go to Georgia to run from the storm, because we was in Hurricane Andrew, and it was terrifying. It was terrifying with Andrew.”

Unlike Barnes, other workers brought their children and significant others along with them to weather the storm from inside the windowless, interior rooms of the concrete building.

Andy Altmann’s job is to provide sign language interpretation during press conferences, helping people who are deaf or hard of hearing get the latest information about the disaster. He and his husband, Geoff Staub, left their Wilton Manors home and checked into the center on Friday for the duration.

While his husband was working, Staub volunteered, manning the county’s emergency phone line. Most of the calls he fielded were from people wondering which shelters had space, he said. Also, he talked to concerned family members who called in from out of state to ask for help for their vulnerable loved ones.

Since the storm began to rage in earnest, there haven’t been many news updates. So the couple has been doing a lot of waiting — for the most part, comfortably, they said.

Staub explained his husband has had trouble getting rest. They’ve been sleeping on cots in rooms with other workers and volunteers.

“It’s hard for a deaf person, because they’re very sensitive to light, and where we’re sleeping, there’s always light on,” Staub said, speaking slowly while signing for his husband.

“So, for me, I slept like a baby, and I am well rested,” he said, as Altmann jokingly shook a fist at him. “But for him, he cannot really sleep good.”

Altmann said light wasn’t the only thing making it difficult for him to sleep. Altmann communicated through American Sign Language, while his colleague, Donna R. Fernandez, translated for him.

“In addition to Geoff’s comment, he keeps hogging my blankets, so that isn’t really a good thing either,” Fernandez said on behalf of Altmann, as all three of them laughed. “I kind of have to fight to get my half of those blankets.”