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Waiting and worrying about Irma in Pinellas County shelfters

Bob Elston, 88, and wife Mary Ellen Elston, 71, pass time reading the comics Sunday morning at Ross Norton Recreation Complex in Clearwater. About 90 residents of the senior living facility evacuated there Saturday. (Tracey McManus  |  Times)

Bob Elston, 88, and wife Mary Ellen Elston, 71, pass time reading the comics Sunday morning at Ross Norton Recreation Complex in Clearwater. About 90 residents of the senior living facility evacuated there Saturday. (Tracey McManus | Times)

Thousands of people are taking the threat of harm from Hurricane Irma seriously in Pinellas County.

About 20,000 people were holed up in 17 shelters in Pinellas County. All but one, Sexton Elementary School on 54th Avenue N., was still taking evacuees when county emergency officials announced around 11:30 a.m. that evacuees had an hour to get to a shelter.

There were more than 1,700 special needs evacuees taking shelter and about as many pets. Here are some scenes from inside Pinellas County shelters.

•••

Bob Elston, 88, only dozed off a few times last night on his mattress on the recreation room floor at Ross Norton Complex.

He and about 90 other residents of Masonic Home of Florida fled there from their senior living building Saturday afternoon ahead of Hurricane Irma's landfall.

The next mattress over, a patient cried out with gallbladder pain through the night, wetting the bed, he said. Others had to have their needs and intimate care addressed in the open room.

About 20 staff shuffled about, changing diapers, giving medicines.

It didn't help the panic he said he felt about what Irma could bring tonight.

But there was one silver lining: His wife, Mary Ellen, usually slept away from him in the home's Alzheimer's section.

In the emergency shelter, though, the couple snuggled up on the same mattress for the first time in two years.

"I barely slept because she just wanted to hold me, hold my hand," Elston said Sunday.

•••

ST. PETERSBURG — Pete Bartoles stares at the computer screen in front of him.

"I can think of 100 other places I'd rather be right now," he says as his gaze returns the screen. One of those places is with his motorcycle collection.

On the computer screen in front of him, Bartoles slowly scrolls through images of 1936 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead motorcycles, which he says is the "rarest Knucklehead of them all."

Bartoles, an evacuee at New Heights Elementary School in St. Petersburg, owns 14 Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the majority of which are antiques. He evacuated this morning from his home near Shore Acres, but wonders what will become of his motorcycle collection.

He estimates that his rarest bikes — the 1912 Harley from his great grandfather and a 1936 green Knucklehead EL — are worth more than $100,000 combined.

Bartoles said he spent 36 hours prepping his motorcycles for the storm. The fourteen bikes are tied down and raised 14-feet in his garage.

"I just wonder what it's going to be like when we get out of here," he said. "I'm worried about this one."

•••

The shelter at St. Petersburg High feels like home to Carla Gamble.

With the heads-up from a community policeman, she was the first to arrive Saturday when the school was opened to accommodate a new wave of evacuees from Hurricane Irma. Her neon green wristband was marked with a 1.

That policeman was there, and as residents trickled in, Gamble, 49, recognized familiar faces: other community police officers, former classmates, co-workers from old jobs and other homeless people from Williams Park, where she had recently been staying.

"I broke a record coming through the door," she said. "And I broke a record with politeness."

Settled in a prime spot facing the WiFi password printed on the wall, she's also made new friends. She shares chocolate chip and marshmallow Rice Krispy treats, and another homeless man gave her a spare heather gray blanket.

"So far it's been nice here," Gamble said. "This has been laid back, more my pace."

She had a copy of Elle Magazine to keep her busy, and her Holy Bible to keep her sane.

And she prays. She prays that her storage unit doesn't flood, and she prays that her mail in her P.O. Box is safe.

She is anxious for the storm to pass, but knows she may have to stay. Hurricane Jose is just days out.

"Hopefully," she said. "They'll let me stay here."

•••

Residents continued to stream into an increasingly crowded shelter at Clearwater Fundamental Middle School shortly after noon on Sunday.

About 1,600 people were in the shelter, including hundreds of pets, officials said.

Dogs were in the gym. Cats in a science lab, shelter residents said.

As she smoked a cigarette outside the school, Sue Sharp said she was just relieved to have found a safe space for her 15-year-old son, Xander and her two cats, Zero and Casper.

And the shelter workers have been helpful, passing out lemonade, tea and coffee, she said.

"They've been fantastic,' said Sharp, 50, who had searched for pet-friendly shelters in Dunedin before ending up at the school on Palmetto Street in Clearwater. "They're trying to keep us as hydrated and happy as they can."

On Saturday, Sharp roamed north county searching for a pet-friendly shelter. One in Dunedin was full.

"I was like "aaaaaah' what am I going to do?" said the Largo area resident.

She arrived Saturday afternoon at the Clearwater shelter, but took several hours to get her pets processed before she could settle in to her home for the storm.

As residents continued to arrive, belongings in trash bags and suitcases, a shelter worker said they wouldn't turn anyone away. Classrooms are being opened for the overflow.

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] Follow @TroMcManus. Contact Allison Graves at [email protected] Follow @AllisonBGraves. Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] Follow @Colleen_Wright. Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] Contact @CharlieFrago.

Waiting and worrying about Irma in Pinellas County shelfters 09/10/17 [Last modified: Sunday, September 10, 2017 4:00pm]
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