As Hurricane Irma approaches, hundreds of Okeechobee County residents head to shelters

Okeechobee County residents are taking the threat of Hurricane Irma seriously. More than 24-hours before the storm winds are expected to impact the Okeechobee area, emergency shelters are already filling up. 

The American Red Cross opened the county’s first primary shelter — at South Elementary School — at 2 p.m. on Friday. By 4 p.m., they had about 400 persons sign in.

People seem to be coming to the shelter earlier this time, said Red Cross shelter manager Mark Milia. He said some people came, signed in, claimed their floorspace with blankets, air mattresses or lawn chairs, and then left again saying they will return closer to the storm’s approach. Others arrived when the shelter opened, set up their area and have settled in to stay until the hurricane passes.

While some at the shelter brought their own food, the Red Cross will serve three meals a day at the Okeechobee County shelters. That food will be “the finest elementary school cuisine available,” said Mr. Milia, noting the food for the shelter is provided by the school system.

Mr. Milia said they are using every inch of floor space available in the areas of the school that are safe in a hurricane. That means in addition to the cafeteria and some interior rooms, they also have people camping in the hallways. No one will shelter in a classroom — the classrooms are locked. The classroom windows mean those areas cannot be used during high winds.

The initial plan was to allow 20 sq. ft per person, but if there is a lot of shelter demand, that could be revised to 15 sq. ft. per person.

Those who go to a public shelter should be prepared for close quarters.

Once South Elementary School reached it’s initial capacity of 488 persons, Osceola Middle School opened. Osceola Middle School has room for 516 people. Next on the list is Yearling Middle School, which can accommodate 681.

Mr. Milia said the those who plan to seek shelter should do so before Florida Highway Patrol closes the highways due to high winds.

No animals are allowed at the shelter, with the exception of service animals.

One of the early arrivals to the South Elementary shelter was Gayle Burns, who staked out a spot under a table in the cafeteria.

 

Mrs. Burns, a widow, said she lives alone in a mobile home and the weather reports convinced her she would be safer in a shelter. She has used hurricane shelters before, so she knew what to expect. She brought a blanket, some snacks and reading material.

She said she enjoys mingling with the others at the shelter, meeting new people.

Her strategic spot under a table means she doesn’t have to worry about people tripping over her, and she also has a buffer from the air conditioner vent, she explained.

She doesn’t mind the 10 p.m. “lights out” rule.

“I’m usually asleep by 8 p.m.,” she said.

In another room at the school, Jeff Liddle sat with his brother, Mr. Liddle said his wife was already out-of-state visiting a grandchild when they got the news of the approaching storm. His wife and his brother convinced Jeff it was too dangerous to stay at the house.

“They told me things can be replaced. People’s lives can’t be replaced,” he said.

The brothers brought two coolers of supplies. Mr. Liddle said his brother is a chef, so they brought some of their own food, although he doesn’t mind cafeteria fare.

He said he looks forward to making new friends at the shelter.

“Everyone here has a story,” he said.

He added he also came to the shelter because someone there might need his help.

Mr. Liddle said he has lived in Okeechobee for 27 years. “It’s a nice community,” he said. “Every time there is a disaster people help each other.”

For updates on shelters, see the Okeechobee County website.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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