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At Tampa Bay’s hurricane shelters, gratitude. ‘Why stay at home by myself?’

Residents were slow to arrive as Ian closed in Tuesday, but those who did were happy for a safe, dry place.
Alejandro Riddick, 18, who recently moved from Philadelphia to Plant City with his family, carries a mattress inside one of Hillsborough County’s pet-friendly shelters in preparation for Hurricane Ian at Durant High in Plant City on Tuesday, September 27, 2022.
Alejandro Riddick, 18, who recently moved from Philadelphia to Plant City with his family, carries a mattress inside one of Hillsborough County’s pet-friendly shelters in preparation for Hurricane Ian at Durant High in Plant City on Tuesday, September 27, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sep. 27

Even as area governments expanded their evacuation orders ahead of Hurricane Ian, Tampa Bay area storm shelters appeared slow to fill up Tuesday. But the early arrivers were happy to be in place as they settled into school gymnasiums and classrooms — their home for the next couple of days.

Some dispatches from the shelter floors:

Largo High: Dogs, cats, one chinchilla

Patrick Burns brought four cats to Pinellas County's pet-friendly shelter at Largo High School on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. The cats, in their crates, are named Scamp, Fritzy, Dennis and Scooter.
Patrick Burns brought four cats to Pinellas County's pet-friendly shelter at Largo High School on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. The cats, in their crates, are named Scamp, Fritzy, Dennis and Scooter. [ TRACEY MCMANUS | Times ]

Cathy Bianca and Paul Granger moved to Largo eight months ago from New York, settling into a mobile home for their retirement. They headed to the Largo High shelter this morning with dread.

“I don’t expect to have much left when we get back,” Bianca said.

The couple will sleep on blankets in the gym. They brought their two cats in crates to the animal area in a school locker room and headed back to the parking lot for a cigarette. “We saw mattresses in there and thought those people must be Floridians,” Bianca said. “We’re not used to this.”

They took suitcases of clothes with them but had to leave “60 years worth of photos” behind, she said. “It’s terrifying to think we could lose everything and we just got to Florida.”

But the two were grateful for the shelter, which Bianca described as “very accommodating.”

Earlene Schwitzner, 71, was more relaxed after evacuating her Clearwater home.

“There’s nothing I can do about it... If I lose it, I lose it,” she said. “Some people think their home is more important than who they are.”

She and her husband will sleep on a blow-up mattress in the gym and listen to jazz.

Animals are kept crated in the locker rooms at Largo High, one of three pet-friendly shelters in Pinellas County.

The county had extra crates leftover from Hurricane Irma in 2017 for people who forgot to bring one. Tuesday afternoon, Animal Services outcome coordinator Casey Hollingsworth said the shelter was housing two rabbits, two goldfish, 37 cats, 40 dogs and one chinchilla.

Four of those cats — Scamp, Fritzy, Dennis and Scooter — belong to Patrick Burns. In 2017 during Irma, he sheltered at Oak Grove Middle in Clearwater. Scamp escaped from his crate as he was walking inside before the storm and was missing for three months. Finally, a neighbor spotted him from a lost poster that Patrick made.

Animal Services has a system: More aggressive dogs are in crates in bathroom stalls while chill dogs are in crates in locker room aisle.

“This is a benefit of having your dog crate trained,” Hollingsworth said.

Owners can take their dogs out for walks whenever they like until dark.

As of 3 p.m. Tuesday, nearly 2,200 people had checked in to shelters across Pinellas, officials said.

“God bless you,” Carol Smerker said as Sandra Singletary checked her in at Largo High with two cats.

Lockhart Elementary: ‘A fortress’

Waiting out Hurricane Ian on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022 were Damon Porter and Brittany Cline. The two took shelter at Lockhart Elementary School in East Tampa.
Waiting out Hurricane Ian on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022 were Damon Porter and Brittany Cline. The two took shelter at Lockhart Elementary School in East Tampa. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]

Shelter use was sparse at East Tampa’s Lockhart Elementary, one of more than 40 Hillsborough schools that began accepting residents on Monday afternoon.

The early arrivals included Damon Porter, a lawn care laborer, and Brittany Cline, who is out of work on disability.

Porter said he came to the shelter with his sister and his 73-year-old mother from a manufactured home that might not withstand the hurricane winds and train.

”I’m all right,” Porter said. “I’m here mostly for my mother and my sister’s well-being, not to take a chance.”

Cline came to Tampa recently from California to be with her daughter. But, she said, the two had a falling out. “I just want her to be safe,” Cline said.

Lockhart principal Natalie Corsanico said she expected more inhabitants as the storm gets closer.

They will include Corsanico’s husband and baby daughter, who will shelter with her when the storm hits. ”This place is a fortress,” she said.

Corsanico, the school’s principal since 2021, said she is fortunate to be getting assistance from two other East Tampa principals: Sharon Waite of Potter Elementary and Emily Tirelli of DeSoto Elementary.

More than 15 other school employees have come to volunteer, she said.

Sunlake High: Beating the odds

The shelters at Pasco County schools were not yet experiencing much foot traffic by mid-day Tuesday, with fewer than two dozen evacuees at many of the 10 locations. Fivay High School in Hudson, which is close to an area that regularly endures heavy flooding, had numbers approaching 100, though.

At Sunlake High in Land O’Lakes, 14 residents, two dogs and a cat had claimed space inside the gymnasium and classrooms set aside for sheltering. County government and school district employees outnumbered the visitors, as they prepared for what they expected would be growing arrivals as Hurricane Ian intensifies and nears the coast.

Katie McKell, 65, of Odessa, said she didn’t want to wait for the storm to come to her. She lives on a canal in a mobile home, and knew the odds weren’t necessarily in her favor, even if only the outer bands of the hurricane pass through.

”Why stay at home by myself when I can come here?” said McKell, who recounted fleeing five hurricanes during her lifetime. “They serve great meals three times a day,” she added, while at home the power will likely go out. “It’s just a wonderful place to be during a storm.”

Shelter staff said the setup for Ian benefited from experiences of five years ago, when Hurricane Irma brushed by.

For example, they placed families with pets closer to their animals, and had separate areas for large families and individuals. They also had food available for the evacuees to have during the height of the storm, rather than having it all centralized in the cafeteria.

”I do feel more prepared,” said Sunlake acting principal Rebecca Jarke, who oversaw the operations. “We learned a lot of lessons from Irma.” 

• • •

2022 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HOW TO TALK TO KIDS ABOUT THE HURRICANE: A school mental health expert says to let them know what’s happening, keep a routine and stay calm.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN A SHELTER: What to bring — and not bring — plus information on pets, keeping it civil and more.

SAFEGUARD YOUR HOME: Storms and property damage go hand in hand. Here’s how to prepare.

IT'S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

RISING THREAT: Tampa Bay will flood. Here's how to get ready.

DOUBLE-CHECK: Checklists for building all kinds of hurricane kits

PHONE IT IN: Use your smartphone to protect your data, documents and photos.

SELF-CARE: Protect your mental health during a hurricane.

• • •

Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change

PART 1: The Tampa Bay Times partnered with the National Hurricane Center for a revealing look at future storms.

PART 2: Even weak hurricanes can cause huge storm surges. Experts say people don't understand the risk.

PART 3: Tampa Bay has huge flood risk. What should we do about it?

INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk.

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