Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

After curfew is lifted, Pasco families depart shelters for home

LAND O'LAKES — Families wasted no time evacuating their evacuation shelters Monday morning, after Pasco County ended its curfew four hours early at 7 a.m.

A steady mist saturated the air outside Sunlake High School.

But the parents, children, seniors and pets quickly deflated their air mattresses, packed up their remaining water bottles and headed for their cars and home.

The worst of Hurricane Irma had passed. Now they wanted to know what the storm had done to their homes and their neighborhoods.

"I called my neighbor already and asked what the house looked like," said retired teacher Pennye Garcia, who left her Lake Padget subdivision because it has so many trees and the winds threatened to be brutal.

Garcia learned she had few limbs and debris in her yard, but also no power and a fully stocked freezer.

"We're having a cookout for the neighborhood," she said. "We're going to count our blessings."

As they departed, several of the more than 2,600 people who called Sunlake home for two days heaped praise on the staff who helped them.

"It was incredible," said Greg Shay, who came with his wife and two elementary-aged children from Calusa Trace because he felt too exposed at home.

He praised the logistics of the operation, the friendliness of the staff, the availability of internet access.

"I was expecting hot, uncomfortably crowded," Shay said. "But you had your own little space. You met people on their own journey. Had a few laughs."

He called it "Sunlake Resort, as much as it could be."

One woman shook principal Michael Cloyd's hand and asked if the school had a Yelp page so she could give it five stars.

"It was unbelievable what you did," Geri Hanyak told the staff as she headed to the parking lot.

By 9:30 a.m., the shelter was all but emptied, with just a few people sticking around to find out if heading home was safe.

By 10:15 a.m., the school district had announced that Sunlake and four other high schools — Fivay, Mitchell, River Ridge and Wiregrass Ranch — would remain open at least another day for families still displaced by rising water, fallen trees and other damages.

Harry and Donna Alexander of Shady Hills were among the first to sign in. They had been on their way home after evacuating, but downed power lines blocked their path.

"We still don't know if the tree fell on the mobile home," Donna Alexander said, sitting in Sunlake's gym surrounded by her belongings, chihuahua on her lap.

Around them, and throughout the rest of the campus, the school staff cleaned to prepare for classes, whenever they resume.

District officials said they hope to return by Thursday. They plan to make an announcement by noon Wednesday.

Cloyd said the work should go well, given the general helpfulness of all who stayed in the classrooms and hallways.

"We've had the best people," assistant principal Jennifer Yonkof said. "There's not much of a mess. We've had no issues. … We were amazed at how it went."

 
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