Saturday, January 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

In Hurricane Irma's path: Pitching in to make life in a shelter more bearable in LaBelle

LABELLE — Inside the hurricane shelter at LaBelle High School, Alberto Cabana played a double role.

He was at once a resident of the shelter, having fled his mobile home with his mom and three younger siblings, at once a volunteer there.

"If I'm going to stay here I might as well make a positive difference," the 17-year-old said. "I've lived here for 15 years and I feel like giving back to it."

The family would have left ahead of Hurricane Irma if they could have, but the car was destroyed in July. With nowhere to go, they had no choice.

LIVE BLOG: Latest updates on Hurricane Irma.

"That kind of blew the window for any chance of getting out of the city," he said. "I'm trapped."

Standing outside the new bedroom now shared with dozens of other people — his own high school gymnasium — Cabana stayed poised and wore a stiff upper lip for his siblings, 9, 11, and 15, as well as others in the shelter.

It made his mother, Francisca Escamilla, proud. But not surprised.

"I was expecting that from him," said Escamilla, 43, who moved to Florida from Mexico in 1993 and is now a child care worker for Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which provides child care and early education for children of migrant farm workers and low-income families.

Cabana said one of the hurricane tracking models put the eye of the storm right on top of LaBelle. Luckily, the family doesn't own their home. But losing it wouldn't mean they would avoid hardship.

"If it's destroyed, then we don't know where we'd go," Alberto said.

• • •

Outside the shelter, people made decisions about what they wanted to take inside and what they were willing to risk losing if they left it in their car when the storm hit.

COMPLETE COVERAGE:Find all our coverage about Hurricane Irma here

One man filled a rolling cooler with water from a five-gallon jug and added ice, then wheeled it inside. Another woman ran by with an infant and a bottle, trying to limit the baby's exposure to the grueling humidity.

Charles Cobb, 59, of Clewiston had been inside but came out to smoke a cigarette — until a staffer reminded him there was no smoking on school grounds. His home was under a mandatory evacuation, the adjective the key word.

"If they didn't say 'mandatory,' I wasn't going," said the former long-haul truck driver, who favored Freightliner and Kenworth cabs when pulling produce across the country, disabled from a stroke. "I'd have been home looking at the TV."

It was his mother, though, who convinced him to go. And with her safe, he told Irma to bring it on, he wasn't scared.

"Not as long as I brought my mama out of it."

• • •

For Emma Byrd, Irma has been a learning experience.

She has been through hurricanes before, having lived in Hendry County since 1976.

But what's different this time is it's her first term as a county commissioner. She has been amazed the way county institutions have worked together. First instance, she pointed out, she stood outside a county-run shelter at a public high school.

She lamented the possibility that Irma's rainfall could overflow the dike along the Caloosahatchee River, which drains Lake Okeechobee. Despite efforts to drain the lake to make more room.

But she said she wasn't scared.

"The warning came before destruction, so we just need to take head," she said.

• • •

As soon as Gilles Coudert, 60, and Nadine LeBlond, 62, opened their mouths, their accents outed them.

The Parisian couple were on vacation to Deerfield Beach, but were ordered to evacuate. So they booked a room in Clewiston, which sits on the bank of Lake Okeechobee and would, too, be vulnerable if the Herbert Hoover Dike failed.

Until Hendry County officials ordered a mandatory evacuation from Clewiston. With nowhere to else to go — and the rest of September scheduled in America — they ended up at the shelter.

At least LeBlond had a sense of humor about it.

"Nice holiday, isn't it?" she joked with a smile.

Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] Follow @josh_solomon15

     
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