TAMPA — As rains and winds intensify, emergency officials say Hillsborough County shelters can hold 15,000 more people, but implore residents not yet on the road to stay where they are.
The 45 shelters were serving 27,648 evacuees as of 6 p.m., including 1,239 special-needs evacuees in three designated special-needs shelters. Even though many are at full capacity, no one will be turned away, officials said.
"If you find any shelter, you and your pet will be welcomed, despite its designation or capacity," said Diania Pimenta, a government liaison with the American Red Cross.
No new shelters will open, Director of Emergency Management Preston Cook said. Yet, after the storm, private buildings may open as shelters for those who cannot yet return to their homes, County Administrator Mike Merrill said.
Shelters are safer than a sturdy house because they all have been built to a higher standard than the typical building code, county officials said. Further, each building — usually a school — has been inspected by the Red Cross and confirmed as safe.
Soon, winds will prevent Hillsborough County Fire Rescue from responding to calls for service.
Officials expect both winds and rain to intensify until Hurricane Irma's eye passes through the Tampa Bay area about 2 a.m. Monday.
"This is just the beginning," Merrill said.
Fire Chief Dennis Jones advised residents to take precautions even inside their homes: close any interior doors to limit pressure changes and retreat to a windowless bathroom or interior room on the ground floor.
Jones said, if possible, carry a mattress into that room. Hiding under it, especially in a bathtub, can provide protection from debris.
The chilling images of Irma's destructive power has spurred an outpouring of interest and help requests. The county's website of hurricane-related tips and information has been flooded with nearly 3 million page views in four days, Merrill said.
Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority buses stopped running late Saturday night, HART CEO Katharine Eagan said. The buses may be slow to retrieve sheltered residents, but Eagan insisted HART wouldn't leave a single rider behind.
"If we took you to a shelter, we will return to get you," she said. "Stay where you are. Be patient."
Earlier Saturday, Fire Rescue Chief Jones said all fire officials have been mobilized, including several special rescue squads who were put together for Hurricane Irma. They're ready for rescues but to protect their own safety, will not respond to calls in areas where the winds reach 50 mph.
"We have done everything that we can think of to be prepared for the storm once it has passed by," he said.
Contact Langston Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @LangstonTaylor