When the schools closed, the shelters opened across Tampa Bay as Tropical Storm Eta barreled towards Florida’s Gulf Coast, lashing the region with heavy rain bands and gusty winds
Hillsborough County opened five of its nearly 50 shelters to accommodate the “worried well,” as they’re called by emergency operations director Tim Dudley — people living in manufactured homes, low-lying areas or in other conditions that made them nervous about riding out the storm.
Eta arrived in “COVID world,” Dudley said — a time when local emergency managers are rewriting the rulebook on how to shelter vulnerable people without spreading coronavirus.
The five Hillsborough County schools-turned-hurricane shelters got a deep, disinfecting cleaning and each person entering was subjected to a check of temperature, vital signs and recent contacts.
In a worst-case scenario, anyone testing positive would spend the night at a hospital rather than a shelter. Short of that, each shelter was outfitted with an isolation room — a kind of quarantine ward with medical equipment, medicines and protective gear. A team of hospital volunteers agreed to staff the rooms if needed.
The Hillsborough Emergency Operations Center is turned on during times of emergency. It was already up and running as Eta approached, turned on eight months ago to oversee all coronavirus testing in the county and make sure it follows rules set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’ve had emergency teams focused all that time on things like sheltering the public safely during a pandemic and staying within CDC guidelines," Dudley said. "So we were as ready as we could have ever hoped to be.”
The 29 people who ended up seeking shelter were largely in good health. They had to wear masks and remain socially distant.
They came mainly from ramshackle homes in the Belmont Heights neighborhood. Middleton High provided a spacious, brick-built shelter from the storm for 24 of them. Sickles High School off Gunn Highway housed two people and three stayed at Burnett Middle School off Kingsway Road in Brandon.
Inside the other two shelters, county employees waited for evacuees who never came.
About a dozen county employees spent Wednesday afternoon in the cafeteria at Steinbrenner High School in Lutz with shelter manager Sarah Watts-Casinger.
On a normal day, Watts-Casinger, 48, would have been working in downtown Tampa at the John F. Germany Library. But like many public library employees in Hillsborough County, she got the call at 6 a.m. Wednesday that she was on shelter duty.
“You can’t say no,” she said. “It’s in the job description when you apply. I just did what I had to do.”
By Thursday afternoon, Hillsborough’s shelters had closed and all medical equipment stored away for the next storm, Dudley said.
In Pinellas County, where Eta hit the hardest, about 45 people took advantage of shelters in Lealman and Clearwater, county spokesman Josh Boatwright said.
One of them, 24-year-old David Cox, was grateful to find a dry place where he could charge his cell phone and scroll through Facebook until he fell asleep Wednesday night. Without the Lealman storm shelter, Cox would have spent the night on a bench or sidewalk, like he has since moving from the home he shared with his brother until two weeks ago.
“This weather is absolutely ridiculous,” Cox said. “It’s November. We shouldn’t have tropical storms in November.”
The storm’s surprise appearance in Tampa Bay served as a reminder of how important it is to prepare, Dudley said. Before it was downgraded to a tropical storm, Eta was approaching Tampa as a Category 1 hurricane.
“Weather is unpredictable, and when they say storms could come anytime from June 1 to November 30, they really mean it,” he said.
“Make sure you have a plan, know where you’re going and stay informed. Hurricane season still isn’t over yet.”
Times staff writers Josh Fiallo and Dirk Shadd contributed to this report.
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2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
PREPARE FOR COVID-19 AND THE STORM: The CDC's tips for this pandemic-hurricane season
PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm
PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job
NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter