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  1. Hurricane

Michael's most vulnerable evacuees make Pasco shelter their new home

HUDSON — Linda Wood lay on a metal cot, closed her eyes and tried to get some sleep Monday night. Pictures of her Panama City apartment some 300 miles away kept flashing through her mind.

The nearly blind 71-year-old envisioned her chocolate-colored front door. She thought of all her possessions on the other side of it and wondered what was left of her home a week after Hurricane Michael ravaged North Florida.

She won't know for days, perhaps weeks. And she can't go back. For now, the Fasano Regional Hurricane Shelter is her home.

"I'm tired," Wood said Tuesday, eyes tearing up as she sipped coffee in her wheelchair. "I'm really trying to keep it together. But I'm angry."

The state asked Pasco County to open its special needs shelter late Sunday for patients and evacuees from the Panhandle. By Monday, the cots were filled with patients who fled hospitals, medical facilities and their own homes rendered powerless by the monster storm.

For many evacuees, this is the third shelter they've been in. They brought with them a host of medical complications, anger, fear and questions:

When will they be able to return home? And is there anything for them to return home to?

• • •

The reinforced warehouse at 11611 Denton Ave. was built with state funds and opened in 2009. Its first use as a special needs shelter was during Hurricane Irma last year. It remains ready year-round to house disaster victims whose medical needs require a reliable source of electricity.

Pasco County disaster planner Tim Exline said Michael has given them the chance to demonstrate how the special needs shelter can help.

"We are ready to go at a moment's notice ...," he said. " It shows that what we've done in the past has given the state confidence in what we can do."

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Nearly 80 people arrived at the shelter on Monday. By Tuesday, 14 were moved to an assisted living facility in Lecanto, three had been taken to a local hospital for medical emergencies and some were picked up by family members, said Pasco officials.

About 40 patients, seven caretakers, four dogs and one cat were staying there as of Tuesday. They napped and showered, ate and talked, passing time. In the afternoon, someone delivered donated clothes, a saving grace for some, like Wood, who have been wearing the same outfit for days.

She was with a group of patients who were evacuated to Florida State University. They spent little more than a day in Tallahassee before they were sent south.

Kenneth Johnson, 59, and his disabled mother were evacuated there after their Panama City home was destroyed. But just a few hours after Gov. Rick Scott stopped by for photos, he said officials announced the shelter would close.

"They threw us out like we were an inconvenience," Wood said about the shelter closing. "They told us there was a better place for us."

Turns out, Pasco is a better place, Johnson said. The shelter's staff has accommodated all of his mother's needs and he's made friends with the other evacuees. They've all shared their own horror stories of fleeing the storm. Together, they're getting by.

"It's not home, but they listen to your needs and your thoughts," Johnson said Tuesday, his eyes welling up. "That means a lot. It eases some of the pain."

• • •

Exline said the state likely asked Pasco to open the shelter so that Panhandle schools, where many evacuees rode out the storm, could reopen. Pasco officials believe it remains the only special needs shelter in the state.

Aside from addressing patients' medical needs, those who staff the shelter are working to make the evacuees feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar environment, and keep them from focusing on what might await them back home. High stress can exacerbate medical problems, so it's important that patients "feel our compassion," said shelter nurse Amy Bowen.

Sometimes, that comes in the form of a gesture as small as a hug or a smile or calling a patient's family. Other times it's ordering a medical device or medication to replace what the patient left behind.

"Obviously, we can't fix the devastation," said Bowen, 42, "but we can fix their lives for a few hours and try to make it bearable."

Still, Wood's thoughts go back to 2012, when Hurricane Sandy claimed her New Jersey home. Her apartment in Panama City, she said, represents the modest life she rebuilt afterward.

"This is like déjà vu," she said. "It's really breaking my heart."

The thought of losing everything again, she said, is unbearable. So she keeps repeating to herself what a nurse told her on the first night:

Think of yourself. You need to rest your head and your body.

"My positivity goes in and out," Wood said. "But Monday night here was the first good night's sleep I've had in days, and I finally feel a sense of safety."

Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.