Okeechobee residents and their pets seek shelter

OKEECHOBEE — As Hurricane Dorian takes its time deciding on a path, some  Okeechobee residents have decided they would rather be safe than sorry and have taken shelter at South Elementary School, a shelter manned by Red Cross volunteers.

Shelter manager Kelly Koch has been a Red Cross volunteer for 25 years and has been through more storms than she cares to count, she said. Andrew was her welcome to Florida, she laughed. She also works with their disaster team and goes out when people lose their home due to flooding

She said they have about 160 people registered right now, and approximately 70 spent the night last night. The rest of them plan to come back today when the storm gets worse, she explained. They have nine Red Cross volunteers helping out, plus they have volunteers from the school who are feeding the people who are sheltering there. The food has been supplied by the school board, she said. On Monday morning, they had a wonderful breakfast of scrambled eggs, fruit and cereal. They will serve lunch and dinner as well. The people in the shelter can bring their own snacks.

They had nine pets stay the night Sunday. They have a separate area for the pets. The owners take care of their own animals, feeding them and walking them. When the time comes for the storm to actually hit, everything will be locked down, including the building where the pets are kept. Pet owners are asked to bring a crate for their own animal, along with enough food for three days, but so far, none of the pet owners have come with a crate of their own and one has been supplied by the county for each pet.

If they come with a pet, they have to register at the pet shelter first, she explained, because if they come in with an animal and it gets loose, she said she is not chasing it. The animals are kept separate because some people have allergies, and it just would not be possible to keep them with the people. “It’s just not feasible,” she said. “But, until we go on lockdown, people can spend as much time as they like with their pet over in the pet area.”

Judith Urbina and her family came to the shelter Sunday night  because they did not know for sure where the storm was heading. They were a little bit scared. They pray it goes north, and that everyone will be safe, but they did it just in case. She said she loves the way they treat you at the shelter too. “They are nice, wonderful people who actually care for your safety,” she said.

Michelle Smith is a veteran of the Red Cross shelter. She said she was there during Irma. She and her boyfriend were dropped off by their landlord because they do not have transportation. They live in a house but are in a flood zone and she is disabled, she said, so they were told they had to leave. Water comes through their back door. When it dries up, they will go home, she said. She likes it at the shelter. They took good care of her last time, she said. She was given a cot, because she has a medical need. You have to see a nurse to get one, she explained. She had nothing but good to say about the way they were taken care of. She enjoyed the breakfast and the coffee. She said she was a volunteer at The Big Lake Mission for many years, and offered her help if they needed her, but she said she didn’t think they would take her up on it. They seemed to have it under control, she said.

There are lots of children in the shelter, including 7-month-old Susan, daughter of Foxfire RemickTrotta.

Foxfire Remick Trotta and daughter Susan spent the night at the shelter.

Ms. Remick-Trotta said she came to the shelter because she lives in a mobile home, and she wanted to make sure her baby was safe. “This seems like a pretty big storm,” she said. This will be her third hurricane, but of course it will be Susan’s first. Susan is not bothered at all by being in the shelter, she said. “She is a people person.” She slept just fine Sunday night, and was all smiles on Monday morning. “They have taken real good care of us here,” she said.

Ms. Koch plans to get some coloring books and things for the kids in the shelter to do while they are cooped up, but she said so far they seem fine, and none of them seem to be afraid of the storm, even though there is a big screen on the wall with storm news playing 24-hours a day. Lights go out at 10p.m. said volunteer Nancy Baslaug. Ms. Baslaug has been a Red Cross volunteer for one year, so this is her first hurricane as a volunteer, but she has been through them as a civilian, she said. She said she does whatever they need her to do, whatever will make things easier for the people staying in the shelter. All the volunteers do everything, she said. “We all work together.” So far everything has gone smoothly. A lot of people are scared, but things are going fine so far, she said.

Pets must stay in carriers in a separate area at the shelter, but owners can spend as much time in the pet area as they wish until the shelter is locked down for hurricane-force winds.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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