Editor’s Note: Sarasota mom Jamee Thumm has written a detailed 3-part series about her experience before, during and after Hurricane Irma. This is Part 2, about her experience inside the shelter. If you missed Part 1, about her decision to stay rather than evacuate, please read it here. Please stay tuned for the final installment of the series.
Staying Safe, and Together
With Hurricane Irma rapidly approaching south Florida and the eye projected to hit our sleepy coastal town, our family made the tough decision to leave the questionable safety of our home and stay in a local shelter.
We knew leaving Sarasota wasn’t the right choice for us, with my husband potentially working hurricane recovery. And dragging three children and my mother hundreds of miles solo wasn’t the kind of stress I was ready to take on, especially with reports of gas shortages, full hotels, and Irma’s constantly changing path.
A shelter, with hurricane graded safety and the potential for continued electricity, seemed like the best choice.
It also accomplished my next goal after safety: it kept us together.
As soon as we were settled in Gulf Gate Elementary, our children playing obliviously around us, a voice over the intercom announced dinner.
Our gazes met in astonishment. They feed us?
“Food?” My middle-schooler piped up from her game with a new friend. “Let’s go!”
Our worldly goods abandoned—except the backpack containing our electronics, cash, and IDs which never left our sight—we walked downstairs to the cafeteria.
Hundreds of people lined the space. Orderly and organized, the line moved smoothly and at a steady pace. The six of us stood patiently and chatted with those around us. An elderly lady with no family, a couple whose roof was already leaking, and families like ours, banded together to weather the storm.
The food was better than we expected: chicken strips, pineapple, spinach, mashed potatoes, and milk. There weren’t any options but it was hot, healthy, and tasted pretty good. It was like being away at camp—only with the worry of what we’d go back to a heavy presence in the back of my mind.
The first night we slept in the hallway.
Police monitored the halls, ensuring our safety. Almost everyone respected the lights-out policy at 10 pm. The worst was a late arrival who was squeezed into the limited space at 3 am, the flashlights from the guards that led them waking us. A father snored about 10 feet away. A dog barked once or twice from inside one of the classrooms—a teacher had arrived after us with her family and pets and moved into her classroom.
I slept tangled in the limbs of my 4-year-old, her fingers wrapped securely around mine. I slept comforted by her steady breaths.
We woke to breakfast, stealing glances at updates on our phones while we chatted with others in line. The same story over and over. They didn’t feel safe in their home with Hurricane Irma—still a Category 5—raging northward.
Later after a lunch of chicken sandwiches, pineapple, mashed potatoes, and green beans, the kids explored the shelter and played cards with new friends.
While we were coloring, pencils and markers strewn about our space with abandon, a volunteer walked the halls announcing, “All families are invited to move into the classrooms.” The halls would house pets and their owners.
Families—especially those with small children—were encouraged to find sanctuary in the classrooms.
My daughter and her new friend scouted a spot large enough for both of our families and we carefully weaved around others as we traipsed back-and-forth to move all of our belongings into the new space. Dogs and cats and their weary, exhausted owners began lining the halls.
Our bright and cheery classroom housed 35 people in the end. The walls, covered with positive quotes and uplifting messages, brought smiles to our faces.
But they fell quickly with the next announcement.
“Winds are increasing. There is no backup generator and power loss is possible.”
The winds were currently sustained at 35 miles per hour, but once they reach 45 the shelter was required to go on lockdown. Dinner and breakfast would be served together in case we lost power.
There was a mad dash for the cafeteria. People crowded into the space already filled with people, families struggled to stay together. At that point the shelter housed over 1,000 people, each frightened and stressed.
For the most part, everyone was helpful and polite, but as with any stressful situation there were a few that were angry, a few that pushed their way into the line.
But I saw acts of kindness everywhere.
People assisting the elderly with plates of food, moving seats to allow others to take their spot, smiles and hugs shared with strangers.
We ate a prepacked dinner in our classroom. The fresh food had run out at that point. The raisins, cheese sticks, applesauce, and crackers would make minimal mess. All 35 people in our class were respectful of each other’s space. We worked together to kept the classroom clean and shared the single bathroom with respect.
The reality of the shelter looked far different from the disaster I’d originally pictured.
As the storm raged on, we slept. The single window dark and beaded with rain. The building was quiet, exceptionally so considering the sheer volume of people and pets and the storm raging outside. The occasional snore or rare bark from the hall. The howl of the wind outside. With the thick concrete and hurricane graded glass, we barely noticed that Hurricane Irma was upon us. The kids giggled quietly as they lay, piled together like at a birthday sleepover.
I fell asleep to whispered discussions of Twilight as the middle schoolers outlasted my reserves. I was grateful that the kids found fun despite the worry and stress.
To read Part 1 of Jamee’s series on Hurricane Irma, please click here.