PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – With Hurricane Irma taking aim at Florida’s southwestern coast, thousands of desperate and frustrated people waited in line for hours Saturday to get inside a shelter – a minor league hockey arena – in hopes of avoiding the storm’s wrath.
Dogs barked and children cried in a line that wrapped halfway around the 8,400-seat Germain Arena before snaking through the parking lot. Ambulance sirens drowned out the chatter as medics assisted people overcome by the 84-degree heat.
More than 50,000 people statewide sought refuge at over 400 shelters, mostly schools, community centers and churches, but few if any scenes matched what happened just outside the city of Naples. A westward shift of the eye’s projected path put the area in Irma’s crosshairs, sending residents in low-lying and other vulnerable communities scrambling to find safety.
Christy Duda shook her head while looking at the line. Accompanied by her husband, two children, her parents and three dogs, she was worried about getting inside before the rain started. The brunt of the storm was expected by Sunday.
Only two doors of the arena were open, causing a massive bottleneck.
“There has to be a better way,” said Duda, of Fort Myers. “It’s an emergency, and it’s taking this long to get in?”
Soon, the rain began falling hard and officials opened all the doors, filling the arena.
Gov. Rick Scott said the state needed 1,000 nurses to volunteer at the shelters, particularly at sites that handle people with special needs.
In Miami-Dade County, authorities had told the homeless on Friday they could voluntarily go to shelters or they would be involuntarily committed to mental hospitals. At least six were committed after refusing help.
Elsewhere, the lines were shorter than at the arena and the atmosphere less tense. The number of people in shelters was just a fraction of more than 6 million residents who were warned to evacuate in Florida.
On Florida’s Atlantic coast, more than 3,000 people were staying at Palm Beach Gardens High School, where the basketball gym’s floor was covered with mattresses and sleeping bags. People slept, talked, read or played with their cellphones Saturday morning. A group of American Red Cross volunteers sang “Happy Birthday” to Fran, an elderly woman who raised her arms and laughed. The forecast’s shift west had lessened the chance the area would face a direct hit.
“Everybody has been very nice, very calm,” said Shaharazade DeCorday, who left her West Palm Beach cottage along the Atlantic coast. DeCorday said she picked the high school because it’s about 4 miles inland and has a three-story building in case flooding gets bad.
“I just wish they had a TV,” she said, laughing.
About 150 miles north, Judith and Steve Smith arrived at Odyssey Middle School in Orlando. They fled their manufactured home after seeing on TV that Irma was getting closer. Judith’s 89-year-old mother lives alone next door and they didn’t want to risk being trapped.
The couple, both 69, called every hotel in town, and found no rooms. With their fuel tank emptying and the service stations closed, they decided to join hundreds filtering into Odyssey on Saturday morning. It was particularly tough for Judith’s mother.
“She misses her home but she’s got to be safe,” Judith Smith said.
Inside, a Venezuelan folk band strummed a bass guitar and two guitar-like instruments – a cuatro and a mandola – amid piles of blankets and bags of clothes. The shelter’s guests snapped photos and clapped along.
“We will entertain if people need entertainment to keep their minds away from danger,” said Alejandro Mendoza, the band’s manager. “Upbeat music, relaxing music. Maybe salsa, at night. We didn’t bring drums, but we can find something.”
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