Okeechobee County ‘hunkers down’ for Hurricane Irma; Curfew starts at 9 p.m.

There was an eerie silence in downtown Okeechobee on Saturday.

Most of the streets were deserted. Buildings were boarded up.

The big American flags at government offices had been taken down; likewise the big flags at Gilbert Chevrolet and Gilbert Ford had been safely stored away.

Okeechobee County residents took the hurricane warnings seriously. By Saturday afternoon, they had already started to “hunker down” as Hurricane Irma approached.

Jersey Mike’s, one of the few restaurants open on Saturday, was packed. The aroma of freshly baked bread filled the store. Owner Krissy Culbreth said she had not planned to open the store on Saturday, but on Friday the employees asked if they could open. She and the staff opened the restaurant at 8 a.m. and soon had a line out the door. She said they will stay open until 5 p.m., or until they run out of bread.

Krissy said none of the customers complained about the wait. “They were just happy to find something to eat.”

At Osceola Middle School, Red Cross volunteers were busy signing people into the shelter.

The first primary hurricane shelter, South Elementary School, filled up on Friday. The Osceola Middle School shelter was ready to open Friday, but did not get its first evacuees until Saturday morning. If OMS fills, the Red Cross will open a shelter at Yearling Middle School.

Red Cross emergency response team members from all over the country came to Florida last week in anticipation of Hurricane Irma’s landfall, reinforcing the numbers of the local Red Cross chapter.

Paige Shaw, the Red Cross shelter manager, came from Nevada to help the storm victims. Two other Red Cross volunteers at the OMS shelter came from New Jersey.

Volunteers from Christ Fellowship Church are also helping at the OMS shelter.

Herb Harper is greeted by Red Cross shelter volunteer Hannah Klaussen.

The shelter capacities are based on 20 sq. ft. per person, but if necessary, they will reduce that to 15 sq. ft.

“We will not turn anyone away,” said Paige.

One challenge the Red Cross volunteers face is a language barrier. Some seeking shelter do not speak enough English to answer the basic questions needed for shelter registration. Paige said the younger members of the families are bilingual and they have been translating.

Herb Harper and his daughter Kelly were among those arriving at the shelter on Saturday.

Herb, who is in a wheelchair, said he was advised to go the medical needs shelter, but they did not want to drive to Port St. Lucie and there is not a medical needs shelter in Okeechobee County at this time.

Herb said he stayed in hurricane shelters in 2004 and 2005. The 2004 storms took his home, he said. He and his daughter now live in a mobile home on the Rim Canal.

“We’re right on the water,” said Kelly. “So we had to leave.”

She said they had to find someone to take care of their dog before they could come to the shelter.

The lack of a pet-friendly shelter has been one of the main complaints as Okeechobee County residents prepared for the storm.

Many people refuse to leave their homes without their pets, said Paige.

Okeechobee County Noel Stephen has asked everyone to be off the roads by 9 p.m. tonight (Sept. 9) and to stay off the roads until the storm has passed. A 9 p.m. curfew is in effect for Okeechobee County.

More updates will be posted on the okeechobeenews.net website and the Okeechobee News page on Facebook, as they become available.

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