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Reading, writing, taking shelter

When newly-constructed Dunedin Highland Middle School opened last January, assistant principal Joe Burns knew that it met the state standards set for hurricane shelters. He didn't know how soon those standards would be put to the test.

In August the school opened for the first time as a shelter during Hurricane Charley.

Dunedin Highland is one of the two new "megashelters" added this year to increase emergency shelter spaces. The other is Thurgood Marshall Elementary in St. Petersburg. Each school is designed to hold up to 6,000 residents.

"That brings the total to just under 70,000 spaces available countywide," said Gary Vickers, director of Pinellas County emergency management.

The Pinellas County Board of Commissioners and the Pinellas County School Board mandated that new school construction or renovation comply with regulations for hurricane shelters. Burns was part of the project team overseeing the construction of Dunedin Middle, which includes concrete block walls that are reinforced with steel. Common areas such as the cafeteria were built to withstand at least a Category 3 hurricane. The school has wide hallways, the first area that is opened in public emergencies. Bottled water and nonperishable food are kept in storage.

"All the glass in the windows and doors can withstand 140-mile-an-hour winds," Burns said. "These buildings meet the new specs on (hurricane) construction. It was designed to comply with all the new state codes."

When school officials got their first test as an emergency shelter, a CNN television crew was there broadcasting from the school. Approximately 750 people showed up during the 26 hours the shelter was open during Charley.

The people who arrived were a mix, Burns said. Some were from the beaches, some from mobile home parks; elderly folks and families. Burns recognized a few former students.

"Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people were really nice, complimentary about us being there for them," Burns said.

Arlene Lathrop, secretary to school principal Peggy Landers, said they learned a lot during that first shelter opening. "It helped us see how much manpower is needed to operate efficiently," she said.

"Now we have a better idea how to manage the flow of people, how to designate responsibilities," Burns said.

More than 8,000 people used shelters during Hurricane Charley and more than 3,000 used them during Hurricane Frances, Vickers said. He said it was heartening to hear the positive comments that came back from the public.

"The school board from the superintendent to the plant operators and all the support staff at the facilities have done an outstanding job _ they've been an excellent, excellent partner," Vickers said.

Burns has a lot of emergency shelter experience. Two other middle schools he worked at were designated shelters. "Each situation is different. We debriefed after Charley passed, got together and said these are the issues we ran into and how we should handle them," he said.

Most people seeking shelter brought their own pillows, blankets, books, games, and a few other personal belongings, although a few people walked in with nothing.

One woman called to make a reservation, Burns said. Another asked, "Is this all you have?"

"But most people are just glad to be here, a safe haven out of the weather," he said.

Dunedin Middle was on standby during Frances, but did not have to open. Vickers said they open shelters with special care units first to accommodate people with extra medical needs.

Last Friday the staff at Dunedin Middle was once again preparing to open as a shelter in anticipation of Hurricane Ivan.

"We're all just waiting," said Lathrop.

Jessica Wheelock, an eighth-grader at Dunedin Middle, said she didn't know the school was a hurricane shelter until Charley arrived. "I saw on CNN where they showed the people in our cafeteria and building 2," she said. "I think it would be safe, you look around at all the cinder block walls."

Michelle Wallace, 13, agreed. "Our new school is beautiful, really cool," she said.