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Principals turn schools into shelters

While three hurricane scares in four weeks provided a respite for Pinellas schoolchildren, many School Board employees worked overtime to provide shelter from the storms.

The Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center designated 20 schools as primary shelters when Hurricane Charley approached the Tampa Bay area in mid August. Nine schools served as shelters for Frances three weeks later. None were opened when Hurricane Ivan threatened last weekend, although principals remained on standby until they got the all-clear signal from the EOC.

"Each of the schools was staffed with a group of administrators, nurses, food service workers and plant operators," district spokesman Ron Stone said.

"A lot of folks don't realize what a massive undertaking this is for a school system. It involves staffing from the minute the word comes down about the storm."

Transportation director Terry Palmer directed school bus drivers' efforts to assist scores of evacuees during both Charley and Frances and were on standby during Hurricane Ivan. Cafeteria workers under the direction of food services director Linda Miller prepared three meals and two snacks each day for all shelter residents.

Close to 70 school nurses led by school health supervisor Pat Mabe in cooperation with the health department and Hospice of the Florida Suncoast cared for residents with special needs at 11 shelters. Campus police officers teamed with local law enforcement agencies to ensure that everything ran smoothly in less-than-optimum circumstances.

"It makes sense that schools would be used as shelters," said Walter Miller, associate superintendent of institutional services for Pinellas County Schools. "They're sturdily built. They're owned by the public. They have supplies, including food, and they have adequate parking. They also have phones and computers."

It also makes sense that school principals would be well-suited to oversee the shelters, Miller added. They are, after all, the ones entrusted with the care and protection of the district's 110,000 schoolchildren day in and day out.

St. Petersburg High principal Julie Janssen got two hours' notice that her school would be used as a shelter during Hurricane Charley.

She contacted a handful of plant operators and several other principals who were assigned to the school, including Denise Miller from Sanderlin Elementary and Pat Wright from Southside Fundamental Middle School, then hurried home to help her husband secure their property.

She was back in time to greet the first evacuees, who began arriving a little after 6 p.m.

"We probably had 300 before midnight, then it was quiet for a while," she said. "About 5:30 the next morning, they started pouring in."

Among her guests were many people with medical needs, some homeless people and several schizophrenics, who arrived with their caregivers. Working closely with Miller, she assigned them places in one of the three buildings set aside as shelter areas.

One of the evacuees was the superintendent from a school district in Pennsylvania, who was vacationing in the area with his family.

"He became our group leader in the auditorium," Janssen said. "Afterwards, he wrote us a letter and thanked us. He said what an interesting experience he had had."

In the end, Janssen said, running a shelter wasn't that much different from running a school.

"We were still dealing with people," she said. "They were just bigger."

Like Janssen, most principals had to put their personal lives on hold for the duration of the storms.

Woodlawn Elementary principal Chappell Meredith worried about her elderly mother while she camped out with Janssen. Bay Vista Fundamental School principal Kristen Sulte left her four young children with her husband before heading to Sexton Elementary.

John Hopkins Middle School principal Kevin Gordon worked through both Hurricane Charley and Frances along with other principals including Juanita Deason from North Shore Elementary, Teresa Anderson from Azalea Middle School and Carol Moore from Osceola High.

"We assigned two-principal shifts of 2{ hours so everybody could get some decent sleep," said Gordon, who slept in his office accompanied for one night by his 6-year-old son.

John Hopkins attracted fewer people during Frances, he said, but they stayed longer.

"I was tired," he said. "But I think you have to look at it as a deed you do as a public servant. I see it as fulfilling the needs of the community."

Of the more than 1,000 evacuees Meadowlawn Middle School principal Greg Cardonne welcomed during Charley and Frances, one remains etched in his mind. An elderly woman asked Cardonne if he would help lift her husband up into his chair from a pile of pillows on the floor.

"I was picking him up and our eyes met," Cardonne recalled. "When he looked at me, I could see how grateful he was. He couldn't talk; he just nodded his head. All of a sudden, I realized the importance of being able to provide help for these people."

Cardonne, who only managed to get four hours of sleep as his shelter stint during Frances stretched to 47 hours, said he and the team of principals he worked with shared some humorous moments.

"Some of the people who stayed for Charley came back during Frances," he said. "They would come in and say, "Remember me?' They would ask for their same spot."

As the school district replenishes its supplies and School Board employees meet with emergency operations personnel to further define their roles as shelter landlords, principals continue to downplay their roles.

"I grew up in an environment where you helped," Cardonne said simply. "It was my responsibility to be here."