TAMPA — At noontime, hundreds of people of all ages and speaking a multitude of languages were crowded into the cafeteria of Pizzo Elementary School on the University of South Florida campus.
They were served hamburgers, tater tots, fruit salad and milk as they waited an hour or longer for wrist bands and room assignments at this school, one of dozens that have been designated as storm shelters.
Michelle McGlone, 52 and disabled with multiple sclerosis, chose to wait outside in her car with neighbor Cindy Sentmanat.
Sentmanat's partner is an emergency rescue worker. McGlone has a brother in Port St. Lucie who would help her out if things were different. "But there's nowhere that is safe to go," she said.
They were grateful to find the shelter, although concerned when they learned of a 9:30 p.m. bed-time. "With MS, I'm up all night," McGlone said.
Inside the cafeteria J.C. Lee, who is 31 and homeless, sat with Debra Hosey, who was waiting with 10 family members, including four young grandchildren.
"I have a lot of trees around my apartment and I'm in a flood zone," she said. The adults in the group told the children, "this is like a little vacation" and packed coloring books, crayons, "you know, the things grandmothers do," Hosey said.
A translator who was proficient in French and Swahili was available for those who needed one.
Business was brisk Friday night as well, said Mario Castillo, a trades worker for the school district who was helping keep things organized. Castillo said he does not know if he will be paid for his time. "It doesn't matter," he said. "My supervisor called and here we are."
Some residents have been more agreeable than others, he said, acknowledging that the situation is stressful for everyone.
"We're just doing the best we can to keep people as comfortable as we can," he said. "It's unfortunate. A lot of people who come in here don't have the things that you and I do. And the storm hasn't even hit yet."
The emergency effort could involve as many as 63 schools and 1,200 district employees who are prepared to serve as many as 34,000 meals a day.
Rows of cots filled the Chargers gymnasium of Dover's Strawberry Crest High School, which was being outfitted as a special needs shelter for adults and children with all manner of disabilities.
Micaiah Yarber, 12, will ride the storm out there with his parents so they can look out for his grandmother, who is 72 and requires an oxygen machine.
"My first thought was to get out of Dodge," said Mel Yarber. But they could not convince her mother to leave the state, and the shelter was a compromise.
Leonard Richie of Ruskin, 59 with multiple disabilities, packed his Bible and little more in a red cloth grocery bag so his sister could drive him to Strawberry Crest.
"Everything I own is in a 17 foot travel trailer," said the one-time truck driver and commercial fisherman. "It doesn't seem like a lot to some people, but it's all I've got and I would be surprised if it's there when I get back."
But those are just things, Richie said. He can't take them to the next world, and he's been heartened by the kindness people as they prepare for the storm.
"If everyone acted every day like they have in the last three days, wouldn't it be a wonderful world," he said.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or [email protected]