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At Eckerd College, a tight-knit campus pulls together before evacuating

Natalie Turiczek, left, 18, of Winter Garden, holds up her fish as she leaves her dorm at Eckerd College Wednesday. With her, from second from left are Louise Nico, Natalie's roommate Alicen Nico, 18, Jake Duggan, 18, and Natalie's mother, Robin Turiczek, holding the fish bowl. Eckerd College will be closed starting Thursday and required students to evacuate in preparation for Hurricane Irma.[LARA CERRI | Times]
Published Sep. 7, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Eckerd College sophomores Chris Donbrowski and Chris Keskeny walked through a nearly empty campus to Triton's Pub on Wednesday afternoon, wondering if it was still open.

The day before, they'd received an email calling for a mandatory evacuation of dorms due to Hurricane Irma. Most students had already left, and they were required to be out of their dorms with their belongings by 9 a.m. Thursday. Campus would close completely by 5 p.m. Thursday.

"We're planning to take a road trip to Tennessee," said Donbrowski, who is from New Jersey. "Or maybe just stay here, hunker down and fight it with our bare hands."

HURRICANE GUIDE: Emergency information, tracking map and storm resources

Keskeny said his family lives in Gulfport, and was waiting to find out whether evacuation was necessary before leaving. But 80 percent of Eckerd's 1,900 students are from out of state, which factored into the decision to get a head start clearing the campus, said Valerie Gliem, the school's vice president of marketing and communications.

"We start very early taking into account what the scenarios could be," Gliem said. "Communication can be challenging. We have parents as far as 1,300 miles away, so we need to give them time."

Ben Spruck, a 22-year-old senior majoring in biology, spent Wednesday morning moving objects away from the windows of his dorm and unplugging his refrigerator. He planned to leave for North Carolina late Wednesday evening or early Thursday morning.

"I kind of saw it coming," he said. "You hope for the best and plan for the worst."

Rebecca Valentine, 20, a junior and the student body president, said she hung around campus after most of her friends had left to help make sure people had a place to go.

"We got that email and then everyone was like, 'holy s---, this is real,'" she said.

Valentine said the college is helping international students who can't travel home find lodging.

"We expect students to have a plan, but we provide a safety net for them," Gliem said.

Robbyn Hopewell, director of media and public relations, said the college has yet to decide when they will reopen.

"When we bring them back, we want it to be a safe environment," she said.

Valentine is evacuating with friends to Atlanta, but said she was impressed with the sense of community that rose up in the dorms over the last few days. She's taking two students she doesn't know with her, as she's heard others are doing too.

"People were posting on Facebook and just walking around and asking people who looked stressed out if they had a place to go," she said. "I think that's a testament to the community here. Regardless of what gets destroyed, I know we're going to be OK."

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com.

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