Floridians fleeing weather’s worst know they might land at a public school for respite from the storm.
The Pinellas County school district closed three of its campuses early Monday to begin preparing them for residents with special needs. The Hillsborough County school district called off all classes Monday, with 49 of its schools called into action.
More shelters are expected to be opened as Hurricane Ian nears and local governments issue their emergency orders.
Officials cautioned anyone going to a shelter not to expect a hotel experience.
“Usually, there are only basic facilities available, like a floor and a roof,” the Pasco County emergency management team advised in a recent video.
Evacuees should bring something comfortable to sleep on, knowing also that space will be limited. The shelters do not provide private lodging, with people often cramming into gymnasiums and cafeterias with others who they don’t know.
“Remember: public shelters do not have cots or generators, and the space you will be able to utilize is limited,” the Pinellas County emergency management department stated on its website. “Prepare by bringing: one-person air mattress, books and activities, a fan, earplugs, covering for your eyes for sleeping, other hygiene, comfort items and medications.”
School cafeteria workers often help to provide some type of meal to shelter dwellers. However, the counties warned everyone not to depend on the shelters for food.
“It would be smart to bring your own water and snacks,” the Pasco staff stated, adding that there is unlikely to be any refrigeration available, so shelf-stable items are preferable.
Hillsborough officials advised people to bring one gallon of water per person per day, along with non-perishable, easy-to-prepare food. Shelter occupants are also asked to bring their own medications and medical items, sanitation and personal hygiene items and baby supplies.
Because they welcome so many people, shelters also work to enforce rules for civility. Those include maintaining quiet hours, usually from about 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and not allowing certain items, including alcohol, tobacco products, nonprescribed drugs or weapons.
No questions will be asked about immigration status, just as no questions are asked to students.
Individual schools will host fewer families than in the past due to COVID-19 protocols that are still in place. Tampa’s Pizzo Elementary, for example, will be able to accommodate 976 families for Hurricane Ian, compared to the limit of 1,700 in years past, said principal Ovett Wilson.
”The bottom line is, we are here for you,” said Liz Valdez, who teaches second grade at Pizzo. District officials gathered at the school Monday to prepare for shelter openings.
Valdez explained how she arranged her classroom, where snacks, toys and activities will be available. The student desks that normally fill the classroom were stacked against the walls.
She said she learned lessons during Hurricane Irma in 2017 and has tried to do a better job this time in preparing her room for shelter residents. She moved bookshelves away from the walls to make more electrical outlets available for families who will want to charge their phones and tablets. She also created small, comfortable stations to help families occupy their children.
“In this time of uncertainty we are offering you our love, we are offering you our fellowship,” she said, aiming her remarks at shelter residents. “Stay safe and please, if you are afforded the opportunity, extend a small olive branch to help our other families.”
Many families wish to bring their pets with them. Some shelters allow this, while others do not.
In Pinellas County, Largo and Gibbs high schools are pet-friendly.
Hillsborough County lists 12 pet-friendly shelters — Burnett Middle, Durant High, Sickles High, Steinbrenner High, Shields Middle, Bartels Middle, Barrington Middle, Smith Middle, Erwin Technical, Sumner Elementary, Strawberry Crest High, Riverview High and Bowers-Whitley Career Center.
Explorer K-8 in Hernando County will take pets. Pasco had not announced its pet shelters as of late Monday.
The counties recommend registering in advance to bring animals to those locations. They also advise owners to bring supplies for their pets just as they do for themselves. That includes proper identification and proof of vaccination, a leash and crate, food and water, litter or newspapers for waste, and cleaning items.
“If you plan to take your pets with you to a shelter, you are responsible for your pet while staying in the shelter,” the Pinellas department added.
After the storm is over and shelter guests leave, schools will turn to the task of cleaning their facilities so students can resume classes. In Hillsborough, where schools are expected to reopen Friday, superintendent Addison Davis said it is impossible to predict whether the cleanup can be done in time.
Find a shelter
Pasco County: pascocountyfl.net/310/Disaster-Preparedness
Pinellas County: pinellascounty.org/emergency/shelters.htm
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