Only those who had registered starting at noon on Thursday were allowed into the school, and once capacity was reached, others who showed up were directed to venues with larger spaces.
Three Broward County sheriff’s deputies were at the front door on Friday, inspecting all bags for weapons, drugs and alcohol. Two paramedics were assigned to the shelter in three shifts, and two will be in the building 24 hours a day starting Saturday morning, along with at least a half-dozen law enforcement officers.
They’re staffing a facility that does not quite have all the comforts of home — there are two bathrooms and no showers, cots or WiFi — but there are a few. Two television sets were tuned to the Weather Channel, providing the latest news about Irma’s approach — all of it bad. There also were nine microwave ovens, plugs for cellphones and computers and, eventually, a generator.
Many occupants came fully prepared, with a number of air mattresses, chaise longues and sleeping bags set up in neat rows throughout the cafeteria. Three free meals a day will be served.
Someone brought in stacks of books, and others played checkers, cards, watched TV, read or took naps. An elderly couple came in concerned about keeping their insulin refrigerated. They were quickly assured by a paramedic that the insulin would be stored in a cafeteria fridge and be available any time.
Suzie and Renè Wilhelm were in Florida on vacation from the Netherlands. They were staying at a hotel a block from a nearby Fort Lauderdale beach. Renè Wilhelm, a Mercedes-Benz salesman, said they left Amsterdam for Orlando last Monday, not really aware of the huge storm gathering hundreds of miles away.
“We’ve been coming to Florida since 2000 — Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale — and we had no idea this was happening,” he said. “We’re used to snow, but not this.”
They stayed in Orlando for a day, then drove south on Wednesday, at the time hoping that the storm would veer away from South Florida.
“We didn’t know what to do,” said Suzie Wilhelm, who works in health care. “As we were driving here, I thought, ‘This is a stupid thing to do.’ I called our travel agent in the Netherlands, and also the same company here, to see if they could get us out, but they never even called me back or answered my emails. The woman at our hotel tried to book us somewhere else, but everything was filled.”
They tried one shelter but were told there was no food and that they could not leave if they went in.
“It was terrifying, so we came here,” she said. “You can come and go. People have been very nice to us.”
Not far away, Bill and Jane Borum, both native Washingtonians and retirees, were reading to pass the hours. They live in a condo at the Bay Colony high-rise in Fort Lauderdale, just steps from the ocean, and left when an evacuation order was issued. They thought about driving north to get out of harm’s way, but traffic was horribly jammed and “we really didn’t have any place to go,” said Jane Borum.
“Our kids in Maryland wanted us to fly home, but we couldn’t get on a flight, so now we’re here,” she said. “It’s our first time in a shelter, and the last, I hope.”
Some hit the road but did not want to go too far. Joseph “Tony” Vincent, 82, said he has seen many storms and planned to hit the road for Irma, but he was not heading far away from the Naples Mobile Home Park — he has weekend room reservations at a modest motel just outside the park, along the Tamiami Trail.
Vincent said that even if he had the money, he would not leave his home state because of a hurricane.
“Hell, you’d be safer here than taking a car on those roads,” he said. “You might be killed before you get to Atlanta.”
Some people chose to stay where they were.
Locals packed bars on Friday night in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood, drinking and watching the U.S. Open and the Miami Marlins game. At Happy Wine in the Grove there was a 45-minute wait for a table after 9 p.m. The restaurant informed people that it was business as usual by writing “We’re Open” in big red letters on the plywood that covered its windows. Bartender Edgar Escorche said he had opened at least 150 bottles of wine Friday evening. Parking was even hard to find around the small restaurant.
“It’s been surprising to see all the people going out in the night before the storm,” he said. “We didn’t expect it to be this crowded. I guess it’s the calm before the storm.”
Alexandra Missagia, 47, said she had been working all day prepping her home for the storm, and wanted one night out before she was cooped up during a storm with a still unknown impact on Miami.
“We’ve been working our [butts] off for three days, we just want to have fun,” Missagia said.
Hazel Lamond, 43, said she couldn’t bear to stay home and listen to the news another night.
“I definitely don’t want to watch the weather channel anymore,” Lamond said.
Flanigan’s Seafood Bar & Grill, a South Florida institution, ais known for staying open through holidays and inclement weather. Jimmy Flanigan, the president and CEO of the regional chain, said he decided kept all 23 of his South Florida locations open Friday. They will close Saturday, but Flanigan vowed to reopen as soon as possible.
Business was flush for him on Friday in Coconut Grove, where his restaurant served more than 2,500 meals and drinks.
“All the restaurants slammed and they’re having to stop taking names now,” Flanigan said. “We stay open as long as we possibly can.”
Other Florida fixtures hunkered down. The Miami-Dade Zoological Park and Gardens — otherwise known as Zoo Miami, which sprawls across more than 700 acres and has more than 3,000 animals — closed on Thursday but said it would not be moving its animals.
“We don’t evacuate our animals since hurricanes can change direction at the last minute and you run the risk of evacuating to a more dangerous location,” the zoo said in a statement. “Furthermore, the stress of moving the animals can be more dangerous than riding out the storm. The animals that are considered dangerous will stay in their secure night houses, which are made of poured concrete and welded metal.”
When Hurricane Andrew struck, the zoo was hit hard. Tropical birds were missing, cages torn apart and animals traumatized — although, miraculously, most of the animals were unharmed.
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