Thursday, November 23, 2017
Tampa Bay Weather

Lutz school planned activities to keep evacuees' minds off Irma

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LUTZ — When 15-year-old Derek Maxfield was told to pack what he could for the evacuation center, he grabbed a basketball.

It turned out to be a popular choice.

Maxfield began shooting around about 9 a.m. Sunday on the outdoor court at McKitrick Elementary School and it wasn't long before three other evacuees joined in for a game of two on two.

"I'm scared," admitted one of them, 27-year-old Victor Tanner. "This takes my mind off it, kind of."

Whatever safety the school might offer against the threat of Hurricane Irma, the staff here succeeded in keeping people's minds off the giant storm.

And there were lots of people, 600 plus — 100 more than the evacuation center at 5503 W Lutz Lake Fern Road had planned for.

"Close your eyes and feel the music," William Whiting told 14 people in an ad hoc, out-of-sync drum circle he was leading.

The instruction worked. Within a few minutes, the performers were playing together.

"There you go," he said. "You have rhythm."

Whiting is normally the music teacher at McKitrick Elementary School, but on Sunday, he was hosting extracurricular activities.

One room over, McKitrick second-grade teacher Lisa DiTornado led an arts and crafts session in the cafeteria for evacuees of all ages.

Lilliana Perez was thankful for the efforts. She and her 4-year-old daughter Allyson Ochoa left their Tampa home Saturday over concerns about possible storm surge.

"They're keeping our minds busy with stuff like arts and crafts," Perez said. "Sitting in our room all day would be hard."

This welcome diversion in the face of a killer storm came about through planning.

A week ago, when Hurricane Irma threatened the Tampa Bay area with its first hurricane in more than 90 years, the school and volunteers huddled together.

"All the teachers said we need to be more than a shelter but a community," DiTornado said. "And we wanted to provide something fun for everyone to do."

Anxiety was high as evacuees checked in.

Parents filing in around 8 a.m. Sunday were red eyed, holding back tears as they put on a facade of courage in front of scared kids.

"It's all going to be okay," assured volunteer Clare Sissel. "We'll get you set up safely."

Matt DiTorando, husband of the second-grade teacher and one of the head volunteers, spoke of a woman who needed medical attention for an emotional breakdown while checking in Saturday.

"She's doing much better now," DiTorando said. "It's been a roller coaster for many."

Twenty-five rooms at McKitrick are being used by evacuees, volunteers comprised mostly of school administration, the Red Cross and law enforcement.

McKitrick was originally capped at 12 people per room during as a Hurricane Irma evacuation center. Within hours of opening at 3 p.m. Saturday, though, the number was adjusted upward to 20 then by Sunday at noon, to 25 or 30 in some rooms.

No problem for the people staffing the cafeteria. They had plenty of food to go around.

And like all the volunteers here, the cafeteria workers sympathized with evacuees who had to split up from loved ones.

Mitch Smithey sent his wife and two daughters to North Carolina to escape Hurricane Irma but stayed behind to help.

"I'm needed," Smithey said. "This is where I should be."

In his 9 to 5 job, Smithey is manager of the cafeteria at Steinbrenner High School next door in Lutz but this weekend he's managing the cafeteria at the McKitrick evacuation center.

"Look around," said volunteer Cathy Ragsdale, normally a Hillsborough County School District nutritional specialist who also is volunteering at the evacuation center cafeteria. "These people need us. They have enough to worry about. They can at least have a good meal."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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