Dawn Strait arrived at Fivay High School in Hudson about an hour after Pasco County opened its hurricane evacuation shelters on Tuesday.
Living in a Port Richey trailer park on the west side of U.S. 19, Strait said she didn’t want to wait and see what Hurricane Idalia might bring her way.
So she packed up her car with her suitcase, air mattress, snacks and her mini Australian shepherd, Gunner, and headed someplace she knew to offer safe haven.
“We were here last year and they took good care of us,” Strait said, as she loaded a cart with her belongings to take inside. “All my neighbors are evacuating. It does flood in there in the streets when we have a lot of rain.”
Officials in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties encouraged all residents in coastal and low-lying areas to leave their homes as the storm intensified in the Gulf of Mexico and headed toward Florida’s west coast. They ordered mandatory evacuations and opened several shelters in schools, which canceled classes to host people fleeing the storm.
Early turnout at the sites, which had space for thousands, was sparse Tuesday morning.
About 250 people had filtered into shelters by early afternoon in Hillsborough County, where officials said they have room for 20,000 people. By that time, Pinellas shelters had welcomed about 1,300 evacuees and Pasco about 100, along with a dozen pets.
The current census is a “rather low number,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, “but that’s good because I think people are taking advantage of other places to go versus the last resort and go to a shelter.”
Officials predicted the pace might pick up later Tuesday, as the first bands of rain and wind arrive. A year ago, some of the same locations welcomed hundreds of residents escaping Hurricane Ian.
If Idalia’s track shifts farther away from Tampa Bay, they said, the numbers might not increase too much.
In the meantime, they worked to ensure that the few who were showing up were treated well.
Jeffrey Huggins greeted a mother entering Pizzo K-8 School, one of 10 shelters in Hillsborough County. ”Welcome back,” he said.
It could be under better circumstances, he said, but Huggins, who works for the county’s library system and has managed shelters through three major storms, enjoyed seeing familiar faces.
”Over the course of a few days, you get to know people,” he said.
Shelters are last resorts, he said, adding that they are “not a resort.”
But for a few days, the 5-by-4-foot space each person is allotted and cafeteria meals could be a lifeline. The shelter doesn’t turn anyone away, he said.
”There’s a really neat human aspect to doing all this,” Huggins said. “We go about living our day-to-day lives and things happen, political or whatever, people get annoyed. But people kind of pull together for this.”
No matter where they come from.
Star Kinnee, 21, showed up at Middleton High in Tampa just four days after arriving from California.
”I left California right after there was a storm,” she said. “I came here, there’s a storm. I feel like it’s following me.”
Fivay High Principal Erik Hermansen, who oversaw the school’s shelter, agreed that communities can set aside their differences in times of need. In addition to educating children, he noted, the schools have a broader role that has included sheltering during storms and providing meals during the pandemic.
County and school district workers who could be taking care of personal business volunteered to staff the shelters. And over the years of doing so, they’ve learned how to keep things running smoothly for those who need the services.
At Fivay, that has meant things such as keeping the television tuned to the news and keeping the coffee flowing day and night.
“I want to make sure they’re taken care of,” Hermansen said of the evacuees. “That’s what this is all about.”
Justin McDonough, who lives in the Jasmine Estates community of Pasco, said he appreciated the effort.
Staying in his flood-prone neighborhood was “not an option,” McDonough said. “When you hear 100 mph winds, that’s nothing to take lightly. You’ve got to get into a solid structure.”
The shelters provide that safety to people who might have nowhere else to go, he said. “It’s a godsend.”
Times Staff Writer C.T. Bowen contributed to this report.
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