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Fighting the fear, from the cot under the window

By Lisa Gartner
Three-year-old Josiah Lee pokes his head out from between the two cots where his family stayed at John Hopkins Middle School on Sunday. At one point, volunteers threatened to pull a cot away for another family, but Josiah's mother explained that her youngest son has medical needs. Space got tight because the staff closed three buildings, worried over their condition.

They hardly slept at all the first night, too anxious to settle. The kids couldn't stay still, and the baby cried. "Is there anything you can do to quiet him down?" asked an older woman holed up in the same classroom. But there wasn't, and Jasmine Walker held him closer to her chest.

No one believed her when she said this would be bad, and by Saturday, it had been too late: The roads were jammed to Georgia, friends told her; she and her family would have to stay in St. Petersburg as a Category 5 hurricane swirled closer and closer.

Jasmine and Larry Lee arrived at John Hopkins Middle School by late afternoon with boxes of diapers, gallons of water and Capri Suns and Lunchables for their four children. They set up two cots by the window, the only corner they could find for the six of them.

They were worried about their house, a rental near Lake Maggiore the landlord hadn't boarded up. Jasmine, 27, was worried about her job, told she'd be fired if she failed to show up on Monday. Most of all, she was scared for her children — from the youngest, whose seizures kept him up at night, to the oldest, a 7-year-old trying to be brave. She wondered what she could do to get them away from the window.

"This is so scary," she said. "This is dead serious to me."

A voice came over the intercom just before noon. "The weather is now declining. There will be no exit or re-entry." They would stay in the shelter until it was over.

Lying on the cot, the baby started to fuss. Jasmine pulled him into her lap and lifted him into the air. "Are you going to be a big boy tonight?" she asked him once, then twice. She kissed him on both cheeks as he started to cry.

• • •

Tens of thousands rode out Hurricane Irma in shelters, schools turned into refugee camps for people wrapped in blankets. They evacuated from flood zones or couldn't find plywood for their windows; they have children and didn't want to take chances, or they live alone and didn't want to be alone. A woman named Ellie Webster celebrated her 96th birthday. A man called "Big Mike" adjusted his catheter.

Lakariah Lee huddled against the window, at the far end of the nest of cots her mother had built. The 6-year-old pictured the hurricane like a big, bouncing ball. "And it's going to crash here." She said she was scared. She played video games with her older brother, Lavarious. He said he was not.

Jasmine lay next to them, holding her phone above her head. She was watching videos people had posted to Facebook in Miami. A construction crane had crashed down, and streets were flooded. "Inside voices," she said to Lavarious and Lakariah.

She pulled up the latest track, a beaded red line running right through her hometown. Irma wasn't expected to hit Tampa Bay until about 2 a.m. It was only noon.

Just then, a woman in a volunteer vest swung open the door to the classroom. Twenty people were already crowded inside, but she said they'd need to fit a few more. They were running low on cots, too, and could give them only to people with medical conditions. She spotted the Lee family.

"If you're not a special-needs client and you have a cot, then we may have to take the cot," she said.

"He is special needs," Jasmine said. She nodded toward the windowsill, lined with syringes.

• • •

When DJ Woods cries, it can sound like he's laughing. He's having a painful seizure. It was almost 1 p.m. when his eyes bugged out, his chin jutted, his lips quivered. His arm started to shake.

DJ has tuberous sclerosis complex, a genetic condition that causes delays, as well as epilepsy. At 17 months, he is just starting to sit up.

Jasmine held him in her arms as his seizure slowed, and his eyes began to tear. He coughed, then smiled. She was not thinking about the email from her supervisor at an assisted living facility.

"I'd rather be with my kids," she said, "so I can know they're safe."

She started to feed DJ sweet potatoes, baby food, so that he wouldn't get sick when he took his medication later.

• • •

It felt like nighttime all day, the sky dark outside the window. No one could rest, waiting for the storm. One of the new additions to the room, a man in a flannel shirt, sat staring at the carpet from the edge of his cot. He couldn't get out to smoke a cigarette. A family of three played Candyland. In another corner, talk turned to Jesus Christ.

Lavarious pulled up a YouTube video: Do sand fleas taste good? Josiah, his 3-year-old brother, started to kick and cry. Lunch came on foam trays, beef and bread and orange slices. Jasmine tried to talk DJ into mashed potatoes.

"Don't put the food on the covers," she said. "When the lights go out, I don't want any bugs crawling on us."

They tried to nap to pass the time. Big Mike was snoring under the brim of his hat, and the 96-year-old woman had slept most of the day. Lakariah was lying on the cot by the window, tangled in sheets covered in cartoon dogs. Josiah tossed his sneakers. "Be still," Larry said, but he couldn't. Josiah and Lavarious played catch with their shoes until a woman across the room named Cheryl announced, "It's reached Naples."

She said the eye was over the city, and it was bad.

"I sure don't want to do this again," said Big Mike, stirring. "This thing's going to tear up this town from one end to the other."

The lights flickered.

Jasmine excused herself to go to the bathroom. The smell in the hallway was thick and rotten. The carpet was damp. A man with one arm breathed into an oxygen machine.

The restroom smelled even worse, sweat and excrement and a chemical citrus stink. The seats were splattered with urine, and people slept on the bare tile. Hunched men pushed walkers into bathroom stalls labeled "BOYS."

Jasmine saw all this and thought, "Maybe this is where we'll go to get away from the window."

• • •

The air conditioning went out. Larry reached up from under a blanket on the floor and hugged Jasmine's legs. "Is that the sound of the wind?" he asked, but it was someone vacuuming in the hallway.

She thought it was about to get really bad now, at 6 p.m. "I don't know how to swim," she said to Lavarious. "Do you?" He shook his head. "You can't save me," she joked, and they both laughed.

Lavarious still would not tell her he was scared. He's the "dad" of the children, Jasmine said, always trying to protect his younger siblings. But he was getting quieter. He sat on the floor, pulling on a piece of string, frowning. He wouldn't look at Jasmine.

"I'm terrified, to be honest," she confessed. "Your mom's terrified. And I'm an adult."

If Lavarious were home, he would want to be eating pepperoni pizza. He would go outside and ride his bike, or knock on his friend's door and see if he could play. His friend has lots of toys — good toys — cars and wrestling figures, even a tablet.

But he was in a shelter, and his mom passed around chunks of banana as they waited for a dinner that would never be served.

• • •

The lights kept flickering, sometimes staying off for a full beat. The intercom announced that the storm was heading north, and weakening. Jasmine lay off the edge of the cot, eating a Hawaiian roll. Her mom was on the phone, blocks away with no power.

"I'm right by a window," Jasmine told her, "but you can't see out there, it's terrible." She told her about her supervisor. "But think about it, she's firing five to six people, and she's already short-staffed. You know she'll be calling."

Lavarious listened to her, sitting on the floor. Suddenly, he said, "I did not want the hurricane to come.

"It's too bad. They destroy stuff. I felt mad — well, not mad, but I had to come to a shelter and I had to leave my house."

He said he has his own room, with blue sheets on his own bed. He pulled the unzipped Cars sleeping bag over his head and lay down on the green carpet.

• • •

Someone sent a bag of chips to the room as a birthday present for Miss Ellie. Big Mike, who left his trailer in Silver Lake, traded jokes about hiding an elephant in a cherry tree.

"I am so tired," Jasmine said. "I just want to get this over with."

John Hopkins ran out of food. About 9 p.m., in place of dinner, everyone got plastic bags with a plum and packet of Cheez-Its.

Jasmine filled a syringe with the first of three medicines DJ has to take each night. "It's supposed to stay warm, but … " The baby reached for the neck of her tank top, hoping to hide in her chest. Then he busied himself trying to smack the syringe away. "You know I don't want to force you." She stuck her thumb in his mouth and squeezed the medicine between the cracks in his teeth.

As DJ settled in her lap, she thought she heard thunder. It was another family, moving on their air mattress.

• • •

By 10, it was pitch black, except for the red at the stoplight she could see out the window. "They have been red for a very long time," she said. She wanted to sleep, but she was scared of what was coming at 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock in the morning.

If the house was destroyed, she'd go to her grandmother's. If she lost her job, she'd find another one. But as her eyes began to shut, she worried about what she couldn't replace. "I can't even describe it," Jasmine said. "Protecting my kids is my No. 1 goal. It's not even a goal, it's a priority, that I can keep them safe."

A 6-year-old girl dimmed the classroom lights. Jasmine looked at the window, looming blank and black over the cots. Then she rearranged her family.

She slept next to the window.

• • •

They all slept through it, the 96-year-old with her pillow propped up against the classroom whiteboard, the 6-year-old girl spooning her new doll, the smoker and Big Mike, head back and mouth open.

Josiah, who couldn't stop squirming, lay on his back at his father's feet, still in his blue jeans. Lakariah slept on her stomach on the outer cot. Lavarious lay on his side, his knees to his chest.

The baby didn't cry, not even once. The storm passed.