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Hurricane 2018: I took shelter from Irma. Here's what I learned.

Doug Restom Gaskill sits with his children Sofia, 13 (right) and Lucas (left) as they settle into their spot in the shelter at John Hopkins Middle School as Hurricane Irma approached in 2017. The shelter welcomed people from the area with pets and those with special needs. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published May 11, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Say you're like me. You're as Floridian as they come. You grew up tracking hurricanes, stocking up on non-perishables (Parmalat, Vienna sausages and marshmallows), hoping for school to be canceled. You've helped put up more aluminum shutters than you can count.

Say you grow up and fall in love with a New Jersey transplant. He's seen snowstorms and blizzards, but never a hurricane. And now a Category 5 storm is on the way. Trial by fire — or hurricane.

He's spooked. You suggest riding out the storm at a friend's impact-proof house, but he's imagining the worst. A hurricane shelter is foolproof and open to everyone, he says. He insists.

That's how we ended up spending two long nights at St. Petersburg High School's shelter during Hurricane Irma.

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COLLEEN WRIGHT: I took shelter from Irma. Here's what I learned.

WAVENEY ANN MOORE: How I took care of my mother during Irma

MOLLY MOORHEAD: How to hunker down when you're not evacuating

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Better safe than sorry, right? Shelters, in fact, should be a last resort, said Mary Burrell, the outreach and education coordinator at the Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center.

"We want them to come to the shelters, we want them to be safe, but if they have any other options, they should do that," she said. "You don't have to go far. But your shelter should be your last option."

But if you have no other option except to evacuate, here's what this native wishes she knew before heading to a shelter.

• • •

You know that footage you've seen on TV showing arrays of cots at hurricane shelters? Forget about it. There are most likely no cots or rollaway beds at the shelter, which remember, is often a school. So, Tip No. 1 is…

• Don't expect that cots will be provided. Pack a yoga mat, sleeping bag or a twin size self-inflatable bed.

Your back will thank you. You will most likely be on the cold hard floor of a gym, hallway or classroom. You'll be there for at least a few nights, so bring something to sleep on, a pillow and a light blanket. Nothing too warm in case the worst happens: the AC goes out. Be comfy, but don't sprawl out. Expect a lot of people in a cramped space. That brings us to Tip No. 2:

• Pack light. I was Tip No. 2's worst offender. I packed bags of food (not realizing the shelter would provide meals), and a whole bunch of other stuff I didn't need. I ended up having to sleep on valuables to keep them safe (because thefts do happen in shelters).

• Here's what you should bring: A change of clothes for three to five days, toiletries, food for special dietary needs, medications (Under a declared state of emergency, Burrell said you can get two weeks worth of refills from your pharmacy) important documents and a flashlight in case the generator doesn't kick in after the power goes out.

If you're going to a special needs or pet shelter, check in with your county's emergency operations center for a specific list of items you should bring.

Imagine that your personal space is the size of a door (think Titanic). Then multiply that by how many evacuees are in the shelter. There isn't a lot of room, so be considerate. In fact, the smallest items could be your saving grace, which brings me to Tip No. 3:

• Don't forget your earplugs and sleeping masks.

Imagine a slumber party with dozens of strangers around. People's nightly habits don't stop, even at a shelter. Certain people are, in fact, louder than a hurricane. You will hear people snore, talk, argue and get up to tip-toe through those slumbering to get to the bathroom or get a drink.

Someone called for medical attention on my floor both nights I was there and paramedics rushed to the rescue with flashlights. But beauty rest is important — don't let anyone stop you from your shut-eye.

Not that all neighboring evacuees are like this. But to make friends, it might be a good idea to:

• Bring a power strip, personal power supply or back up batteries to keep all your devices juiced up.

Even at the shelter, I was hard at work reporting during the hurricane. Luckily, I was placed next to an outlet and had several electronic devices charging constantly: cell phone, laptop and portable charger. I also let some of my neighbors plug in to charge their own devices.

Keep in mind that outlets might not be available or personal device charging could be restricted to ensure medical equipment can operate, said Laura Wilcoxen, Assistant Emergency Management Director at the Pasco County Emergency Operations Center. Always try to charge your devices as much as possible, but in case the generator doesn't kick in and the shelter is without power …

• Entertain yourself. It can get very stir crazy at a shelter. You're indoors for hours — days — with a lot of personalities. You're lucky if there's a TV around, but it's likely tuned to the same gloom-and-doom loop coverage of the storm's track. A heated debate could ensue about what to change the channel to.

Don't rely on a TV. Don't rely on electricity. Bring a book, magazine or small craft to work on to pass time. For kids, a favorite toy or game. One of my shelter neighbors, Nini, made bracelets to pass time. She gave me one — a sign of a good neighbor.

And the best advice I can leave to my fellow hurricane-prone neighbors is this:

• Be Patient. Remember the mantra: Shelters are a lifeboat, not a cruise ship. Hurricanes are stressful for everyone: the evacuees, those running the shelters and those overseeing all emergency operations.

• • •

Keep in mind that those working in the shelters are not volunteers — they're school administrators with contractual obligations to be on duty during a hurricane, and that means leaving family members behind to tend to the shelter. They're not experts in emergency operations, but their priorities are to keep everyone safe and fed.

2018 TIMES HURRICANE GUIDE: GET READY FOR STORM SEASON

Forecasters predict an active Atlantic storm season

Heed Irma's lessons to protect your stuff

Gear up to gut it out. Prepare your kit now.

Don't wait for the storm to protect your pets

The Pinellas County school district sought reimbursement of $2.65 million after opening 16 schools as shelters during Hurricane Irma. The largest cost went to covering the salaries of personnel, but the second largest cost? A Hazmat-like cleaning service.

Be the ideal evacuee: considerate, hygienic and polite. It's rough for everyone in there, so try to do your part to make the experience pleasant amongst the crowded.

"They've got to be ready that it's not going to be like a vacation," said Clint Herbic, associate superintendent of operational services for the Pinellas County school district.

Colleen Wright is now the education reporter at the Miami Herald. Contact her at cawright@miamiherald.com

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