***Our shelter from Hurricane Irma was a large classroom in an elementary school, and its floor space was 85% taken when we arrived with dog Rosie, her cage, computer, iPad, Kindle and phones, one cooler and a piece of carry-on luggage but no blankets or chairs or air mattresses, like others in the room who possibly had done this before. We got the last small space by a wall, beside the door. The governor had declared that every shelter would be pet friendly (bless him), and whoever was in charge of ours decided to separate people with animals from those without. People without animals sat along the carpeted hallways, possibly the safest place. Our room was tiled. We had a six by six space, marked off with painter’s tape. The dog that entered after us peed in our space.
Soon the middle of our room filled with new families and I was glad I had a wall to sit against. We were there about 28 hours before the storm hit, and left with daylight Monday morning, about 12 hours after. We’d spent two days sitting on our small cooler top and two nights sleeping on the floor on a narrow rug we’d brought from the car. Note of explanation: we’d first sheltered in a comfortable, well-equipped house belonging to relatives in Cape Coral, but left quickly Saturday morning, going farther inland, forgetting the blankets, when the hurricane forecast changed, targeting our coast. The storm surge was supposed to be as high as 15 feet. (On our part of Lee County, it turned out to be about 2 feet.)
The second night in the shelter a neighbor gave us a thin quilt, a sheet, and a towel. The first night we cuddled up but froze (air conditioning and cold floor); the second, after the storm, we welcomed the breeze that came through the windows.
Our shelter had opened late as others filled and people were turned away. We waited in the heat for almost two hours to get in, and finally, with rain starting, the National Guard opened the doors and finished processing everybody inside. We registered and were given wrist bands and a badge identifying our room.
The National Guard was in charge, the Red Cross provided food, the school principal, staff, and other volunteers assisted in many ways. There was also an EMT squad and a few state patrol officers, though I’m not sure they were present all the time. The presence of the military gave a sense of order. Some of the Red Cross food was actually very good, especially the strawberry and orange-flavored Craisins. (Buy some, you’ll like them.) We ate wonderful beef and a well-seasoned piece of chicken that might have been created by master chefs. The portions were tiny, amounts we should no doubt eat as a rule. Poor husband wanted seconds, but they’d taken in extra people and ran out of supplies. But bless them all. Last week I’d donated to the Red Cross for the victims of Harvey. This week they were feeding me.
I got teary when I walked into our assigned room and saw the people arranged in their places against the walls. As the hours wore on my dominant feeling was gratitude for shelter as well as anger for the 55 to 60-year-old woman to our right, the caretaker of a paraplegic man and his 92-year-old mother. The man sat in a wheelchair the entire time except when the caretaker got the EMTs to take him to a place where she could change his diaper. He sat and stared and didn’t speak until the end when he surprisingly initiated a conversation with my husband about fishing for Snook. I’d thought he couldn’t speak. He and his mother seemed like gentle souls. I may never stop worrying about the kind of treatment they get when people aren’t present to witness. Whenever the old woman spoke (she slept on the floor too, poor thing, and I thought her moans were justified) the caretaker and her husband shouted at her. Not just shouting because she didn’t hear well, but shouting in rage.
The caretaker’s husband was the fourth person in this group, and he did nothing but sit in his corner, claiming various medical problems. From the beginning, the caretaker raged at everything, including the fact that she’d been told this was a shelter for people with special needs, maybe because she was the only one in her group doing anything. She did look like she was about to have a stroke most of the time. Here’s the old woman lying on the floor, unable to lift herself, and the caretaker is screaming at her to get up and take hold of the walker. I went over to help, not that I have the strength to lift anyone who can’t help themselves, but mainly to say that I also couldn’t raise myself from the floor without help or something to hang onto. When I said that, the caretaker’s husband got up from his corner and lifted her to her walker. I intervened one other time, when the old women got from her wheelchair to her walker with the intention of going to the restroom down the hall and the caretaker screamed at her to just go in her diaper because there was a long line. I went over and said I’d go with her (to open doors and clear the way through the hallway where people’s heads were against the wall and their feet bordered the narrow walking space). As it turned out, there was no line at the restroom, and the old woman took care of herself in the handicapped stall.
Eventually the restrooms ran out of soap, but it was resupplied. (Thank you, school system–we used a lot of your stuff and made a mess of your building). The building lost power hours before the storm hit, but had an emergency generator, and of course the mouthy guy to our left complained because if we had lights why not air conditioning? The generator was only powering bathroom lights and dim lights in the rooms and hallways.
By about eight Saturday night the storm had passed us. We’d listened to a blow-by-blow on a battery radio from the local weather people, a fascinating account because they were tracing the storm past places and streets we knew. Marco Island, where the storm came ashore, is about 45 minutes south of us, and we’ve been there as well as to places between here and there, so everything was very real. We were tense, but surprisingly, not afraid. The winds never seemed frightening and our building and windows did not shake or rattle.
After the storm the building had no water, and the toilets were stuffed to the rim with paper. Later someone scooped out all that paper and took it away and also took the remaining toilet paper, leaving a large bag-lined trash can in the middle of the restroom. Bless those folks for their work and their good thinking!
It was fortunate for us the storm weakened and went ashore because our side of Lee County had minimal damage–trees down but not major power lines lying in the streets, at least not that we saw. When we left soon after daylight, we could see that crews had removed trees from the roads during the night. Bless them too.
But back to the inhabitants of our room: 60 of us, and 20-25 dogs, including one very large German Shepherd with no cage and another huge caged dog that carried on and was finally moved somewhere else. Lots of barking and snarling, establishing territories. Inside her cage, Rosie sometimes barked and growled if someone came too close to us or a passing dog surprised her. Did I mention that the caretaker and her husband also shouted at and slapped their dogs? Four of them, including one frightened terrier that belonged to the old woman and lay close to her. I didn’t know they had a cat (in a carrier) until a few hours before we left, when I heard it mew very quietly.
All dogs were regularly walked to the outside, even in the rain, to do their business. Some didn’t quite make it in time. A huge German Shepherd barked and carried on whenever one of his people left the room, just a frightened baby. Other dogs did the same. Rosie of course was the best dog in the room because she’s accustomed to being the best dog in the world. 🙂
I wish I’d been able to record the sounds in our room. The dominant language was Spanish, maybe dominant for the entire shelter. It’s been a long time since I studied Spanish, but I recognized some phrases: Dios mio! Twice an older woman stood, called for silence and offered a prayer (in Spanish, she said, because she could say it better that way). The pitch of her prayer rose upward in waves of intensity which would have sounded familiar to anyone who has attended emotional church services, no matter in what language.
The youngest child in the room might have been 18 months. There were a few elementary kids, a couple of teen-age girls. They were all quiet and well behaved with their phones and devices, (though they loosened up after the storm, relieved or exhausted). Before the storm, some girls in the hallway were singing songs in Spanish. When they switched to hymns (in Spanish), I recognized “Just as I am” and “When the Roll is Called up Yonder.” Tell me that wouldn’t make you feel good.
The worst behaved people in the room were the “whites” to our right (the caretaker and her group) and those to our left, also white, dominated by a mouthy guy with two small dogs. He was pushy in every way–offering us his food, his sodas, butting in to everyone’s conversation with an alternate opinion and bickering with the two who were with him, who seemed like family though he told us the man was his best bud. That man spoke very little. The mouthy guy referred often to his house, and I think the quiet man and his wife/girlfriend lived with him. She was the one who gave us the ratty quilt for the second night. She bickered a lot as well, but if I had to live in a house with the mouthy guy, I might do worse. I finally spoke up to him after the storm, when we had no power and everyone was feeling the heat. Someone had opened a window and the National Guard came in and said windows had to be shut. When he left, the woman in the mouthy guy’s group got up and went to open the window. Mouthy guy kept shouting, “Open it, we’ll say we all did it.” I said, “You aren’t speaking for me.”
All in all, I think I controlled myself very well, though I did speak up after the storm when the caretaker and the mother of a lot of kids were having a shouting match. I just asked them to be quiet and let people please have some rest. Throughout our stay, my husband was his usual helpful self, speaking to our neighbors on the left and right more respectfully than I thought they deserved, joking and trying to make people feel better. Bless him too.
The women did open the window, and later the Guard opened doors to let breezes go through the building. And yippee–though nobody was supposed to be outside, the mouthy guy decided he had to see his house, and for a half an hour he treated all of us to his complaints as he packed his stuff and took it to his truck (wading through a few inches of water). We passed the second night without him. Whew.
Lessons learned: First, we’re going to buy a couple of lightweight folding lounges to take in case we ever have to go to a shelter again. Second, nobody knew where to go in this storm, and the fact is, we can never be certain. We always knew our island would be evacuated and planned to stay not far away on the mainland, for in the hours leading up to landfall, all the forecasts said the storm was going up the east coast. We never wanted to join the parking lot of cars and trucks on the roads to the north. It was only when our son called and said we were going to be targeted that we got out. He made calls and found our shelter. Bless, bless him.
We returned to find our house and most everything on the island perfectly fine. As I write (a calming influence for me) our house doesn’t have power, but it was wonderful to find it intact after imagining it totally wrecked by wind or damaged by flood. We have a small generator, and husband has powered up his music system and is singing and playing sax for my benefit. I told him to crank it up.
Though we’ve been home three nights, I haven’t lost the displaced, uncomfortable sense of being in that shelter. Without the learnings from the Katrina hurricane, our experience might have been unbearable. I have a small understanding of how it must feel to be a refugee.
I need to donate to the Red Cross again. And again.
17 thoughts on “The people in our room: a Hurricane Irma story”
We see pics of folks in the shelters but your first hand account sure makes it real. Glad you are home safe.
Thank you. I had to get this down in words to make sure I remembered.
This first person description could not have been written by anyone better than Carol. All of us fortunate enough to “run from the storm” or avoid being evacuated should read this realistic picture.
Bill, I wished we’d stayed in place. But you never know! Good to hear from you.
I am so glad that you are all ok. I did not realize you were down there or I would have been so worried at the time. So thankful Rosie and her wonderful family are safe.
I am so happy to hear that you are all safe and had no significant damage. I was Rosie’s foster mom in WV and thankful that she has such a loving family. Hopefully this will be your one and only shelter experience.
Thank you, Sheree. We sure love Rosie. And she is the best dog in the world!
Carol, such a moving account. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be in one of those shelters and your account shows it very well. My heart breaks for those who have caretakers without the skills to be caretakers. Imagine how it must be for them all the time. Very glad you survived and could come back to your house intact. We spent a couple of tense days up in our cabin but glued to the news worrying about my daughter and other loved ones. Secondary was worry over our vacant home in Tallahassee. Fortunately, everyone came out all right. Now the rivers in north Florida are rising which isn’t being reported. We have friends on the Santa Fe River which feeds into the Suwannee and homes are under water. Unprecedented high waters. Still praying.
Thank you, Patricia. The flooding in our region is being reported locally and dealt with (somewhat) locally as well. These things don’t hit the national news. People are suffering without power. And this was not a devastating storm, just devastating to some.
Kudos to you, Carol for preserving your memories while they are still fresh! In the future, perhaps people will remember your experience and be more thoughtful.
Thank you, Betty.
What a wonderful story. I believe it was Sunday when Irma was at her worst in Cape Coral. We stayed in a friends home with our two kitties. We kept them in the bedroom with the door closed to keep them calm during Irma. Willy Wonka, cat loves to eat plants and the owners had brought in many potted plants to keep them from being damaged by Irma. Some plants can be poisonous to pets so to be safe we shut both vats in our bedroom. At the peak of the storm I went into our bedroom to check on our two babies. They were sleeping peacefully in their beds. Oh, to be like them!
Thanks, Don, for your addition to the hurricane story.
Carol, thank you for sharing so clearly your experience. Now that we have dealt with two hurricanes in an 11 month period, I realize how difficult they are for all people, but you even “took us inside” to experience shelters. I hope you never have to experience this again, but I am grateful that you, Chuck and Rosie were safe…..I imagine you all were blessings to many as you endured Irma!
Carol L, I had no idea the straights you were in.
We are so blessed you both are well
Love You XOXO
Thank you,LV. We were uncomfortable, but fared well in the end. Not so for others. Love you too!
A very raw account of “living with one’s neighbors”. Our communities need love in more ways than we realize, I think.