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Local shelters spring to life after evacuation orders send residents packing

By Jeffrey S. Solochek
Khay Loyd, 14, volunteers to help out evacuees at the Fivay High School shelter, which opened during Hurricane Irma Friday. Loyd was an evacuee himself. [JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times]

Across the Tampa Bay area Friday, residents displaced by mandatory evacuations began to show up at local shelters, taking advantage of a system put in place long before Irma became a hurricane.

Sunlake High School in Land O'Lakes opened its doors at 11 a.m., ready to house as many as 2,800 evacuees in its classrooms. The accommodations included meals, a pet-friendly area in the dance room and plans to show movies.

At Gibbs High in St. Petersburg, a school with about 1,300 students, volunteers and staff prepared to accommodate as many as 6,000 evacuees and feed them three meals a day.

LIVE BLOG: Latest updates on Hurricane Irma.

About 100 people had arrived by early afternoon, many of them in school buses, already setting up blankets on the outer edges of the gym and eating in the cafeteria. Many brought clothes, medicine, tablets and Bibles. Four St. Petersburg police officers will be on duty at all times when the shelter is operating.

The people who have arrived so far have "been very grateful, especially when they found out we had lunch ready," said Sharrell McInerney, 37, a science coach at Gibbs who had volunteered to greet evacuees.

Among them was Vanessa Ervin, who brought six children with her, including nieces and nephews, ages 8 months to 8 years. The children were happily enjoying frozen strawberry cups in the cafeteria.

"This is our first time" in a shelter, said Ervin, who moved to St. Petersburg from Illinois about a year ago. "I love Florida, except for the hurricanes."

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Carmen Silva was the first to arrive at Sunlake High, accompanied by eight children and grandchildren. The family lives in Land O'Lakes and had planned to stay at home through the storm. But the house is near a pond, said Silva, 78, and it wasn't secure enough.

"I want to protect the kids," she said.

Silva praised the amenities at the school, where her family had almost an entire classroom to themselves.

They had to leave to pick up bedding, which was not supplied by the shelter, but they planned to come back.

The staff at Sunlake included Devin Arisman, 16, a junior at the school, and her brother, Hunter, 13, who is in eighth grade.

"We thought it would be better to volunteer here if people need help rather than sitting home doing nothing," Devin said.

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A clear tube ran from an oxygen concentrator to Lonnie Banks' throat as he sat with his wife, Lena, in the library at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg. In all of her 63 years in the city, she had never evacuated during a hurricane but couldn't risk her husband, who is also 63, losing his oxygen supply.

"If our power goes out, he's through," Lena Banks said.

John Hopkins is a designated shelter for people with special medical needs and those with pets.

Franklin, a 12-year-old Yorkshire Terrier, sat in his crate between a blue St. Pete baseball cap and a tan sock monkey in the boys' locker room. His owners Karen Rozmus, 71, and Rick Copenhaver, 69, were in the gym, because animals at this pet-friendly shelter can't be in the same room with humans.

"When we found out, he took his hat off his head and gave it to Franklin so he could smell him and not feel like he was abandoned," Rozmus said, referring to her partner Copenhaver. "This is the first time in 12 years he's been away from us. He hasn't been in a crate since we first got him."

The couple could pick one person to be Franklin's designated caregiver and the honor went to Copenhaver. He can visit Franklin as often as he likes and take him outside for a walk, but must be accompanied by a shelter official. The two were glad to be safe, but disappointed there were no cots available.

"We can either sleep on the gym floor or the gym floor," Copenhaver laughed. The gym and locker room floors are covered in green vinyl in case an animal has an accident on its way in or out the door. About a dozen dogs were in the locker room by midafternoon Friday.

"I was awakened at a-quarter-til-eight this morning by the police saying (on a bullhorn) we had to evacuate," said Pat Henrick, 69, who lives at Robert's Mobile Home & RV Resort near Gandy Boulevard. She and her sister, Peggy Abrahart, 75, brought their three dogs, Marley, Bella and Skye to the shelter.

"I'm nervous because I'm wondering if I'll have a place to come back to," Abrahart said.

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In Hudson, the shelter at Fivay High School began filling quickly after Pasco County announced its mandatory evacuation west of U.S. 19.

Many residents came from their homes just 10 to 15 minutes away.

"We live in these little houses, and we're afraid they're going to blow away," said Dolly Dalfior, 87, who arrived from her Beacon Woods subdivision with some neighbors.

The area is known for its heavy flooding, and the county took no chances in having people stranded, issuing its order around 10 a.m.

Upon arriving, evacuees learned the shelter would have no beds or water available, although it would provide three meals a day and plenty of space to camp out in safety. Many came armed with pillows, air mattresses, containers of water and suitcases filled with food and clothing.

Others headed back to their cars for a quick drive home or to a store to pick up necessities.

Michelle Loyd claimed a prime spot in the cafeteria, next to the wall and with easy access to an electric outlet, for herself and her three children, ages 3, 14 and 17. She lay under a purple blanket with 3-year-old Brielle, who watched Spongebob Squarepants on a phone while sons Khay and Daelin helped elderly arrivals carry their belongings.

"We live just east of U.S. 19," Loyd said. "Instead of waiting, we decided to come early and get all set up. … I was very concerned about the storm surge and the track of the storm."

Khay, riding out his first major hurricane, said he wasn't too nervous.

"I don't think I should be," the Fivay freshman said. "I think we will all be fine."

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Terry and Steve Soszynski certainly hoped so. They only recently retired to Pasco County from upstate New York.

"We wanted to escape the blizzards," Steve Soszynski said.

They praised the county and school district staff who welcomed them to the Fivay High shelter, as well as all the neighbors who looked out for one another despite their own worries.

And Terry Soszynski had some of those: "I'm not afraid of a storm in any way … but a hurricane scares the heck out of me."

Barbara May tried to keep a calm outlook.

"You look at all these disasters, and people just move on," said May, 67. "What can you do? … I just want my house to be standing."

Expecting an increasing influx of residents, Pasco County opened a second round of shelters at 4 p.m. Friday. The school district also made efforts to reach out to people living in Lacoochee, where many families live in flimsy structures, to ensure they had information about the shelters and a way to get there.

The district scheduled a bus from Lacoochee Elementary to the nearest shelter Friday afternoon.