As Hurricane Ian threatened to batter Tampa Bay, Pasco County officials outnumbered evacuees at Sunlake High, which had opened as an emergency shelter hours earlier.
Acting principal Rebecca Jarke, who managed the operations, said she couldn’t predict how many residents might fill the buildings as they fled the storm. But the response team stood ready to serve them all.
“I think a lot of people realize the shelter is a last resort,” Jarke said. ”They might make other plans. But they know we are here.”
The counties, which control the shelters, make clear from the outset that people should not expect much from the sites — perhaps not much more than a safe space with a roof and a floor. The prospect of such a spartan existence might deter some from coming.
But several evacuees said they found the spaces where they sought refuge to be welcoming, professional and a fine alternative to riding out driving rain and whipping wind at their endangered homes.
Linda Humber, 59, said she didn’t trust the windows on her apartment in Clearwater, so she checked in to the shelter at Skycrest Elementary School ahead of Ian’s arrival.
The staff assigned her to a classroom with five other women. She got settled with the blanket and folding lawn chair she brought to sleep in and started praying.
As the wind howled outside, Humber said she was grateful for the shelter provided by Pinellas County.
”There were roaring sounds of banging and pounding and I thanked God that I was here, because I would have been frantic alone,” Humber said.
Outside Cannella Elementary in Carrollwood, Gary Faulkner was waiting Thursday for a ride to his home off Sheldon Road.
”I called my neighbor and she said everything is fine,” said Faulkner, who spent three nights in the shelter.
“Everybody treated me very well,” he said of the experience. “And they were very polite.”
Mark Madrid, 59, said he rode out the early days of the storm at his Town ‘N Country home. As the rain picked up, and his neighborhood faced an evacuation order, he drove to McKitrick Elementary in Lutz.
“I was just planning to sleep in my car” in the parking lot, Madrid said.
But the shelter offered a room with an air mattress, three meals a day and quiet time to allow for sleeping.
“I was pleasantly surprised. It was very nice,” he said as he prepared to head back home Thursday morning. “Everybody who was in the room said they would come back here.”
K’Lynn Mcleod, 13, of Carrollwood, shared that sentiment. She stayed in a McKitrick classroom with her mom and sisters, one of whom celebrated a birthday during the storm. Shelter workers decorated the staff lounge and held an impromptu birthday celebration.
“They fed us and made sure we were OK,” K’Lynn said. “It was actually comfortable and fun.”
At neighboring Steinbrenner High, Adrian Soberano of South Tampa walked his dogs in the parking lot before heading out.
He said everything about the shelter experience for him and his family was “really good” — except for one thing. When the shelter began to close, he said, the family did not have a safe place to go and the shelter staff hustled them out the door anyway.
“They don’t even apologize,” Soberano said. “They just said, ‘You need to go.’”
They were the last evacuees to leave the school, as workers began cleaning the site in preparation for classes on Monday.
• • •
Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
TAMPA BAY CLOSURES: What to know about bridges, roads in Ian’s aftermath
WHEN THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?
WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.
IT’S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.