CRESTVIEW — By about 2:30 p.m. Saturday, 42 evacuees escaping Hurricane Irma arrived at Shoal River Middle School’s evacuation shelter. A few families gathered around their vehicles in the parking lot while others, like Brigid Lenderborg and her fiancé, took refuge on a cot in the gym.
“We live in Homestead, but at the time of the storm we were stationed in Daytona, but my children are in Homestead,” said Lenderborg who was guided to the shelter along an evacuation route by a Red Cross volunteer. “So we all had to travel and we have been traveling for two days. We had nowhere to go, just running from the storm, and as of yesterday one of your (Red Cross) volunteers went to the stop and offered us to stay in the shelter. We were skeptical because we don’t know. We didn’t know where we are. We were just driving and following your (Red Cross volunteers) car.”
Across the parking lot is Riverside Elementary School, where another shelter is set up if Shoal River reaches 75 percent capacity. The Florida Highway Patrol has been directing evacuees to the shelters on digital signs along Interstate 10, but Shoal River Principal Gary Massey said the primary thing holding evacuees back from finding a shelter is being informed of where the shelters are.
“I think the No. 1 thing is to communicate to people that the shelter is open," Massey said. "There are a lot of people looking for hotels or at rest stops who are not aware that the Shoal River shelter is available. We are pet friendly and we welcome all evacuees at this point.”
Massey said Shoal River has everything but clothing. “So as far as what they need, just their clothes are probably a priority, and then we can get them food and we have some comfort kits that the Red Cross are providing.”
The school’s cafeteria is packed with white bread and bananas for hungry evacuees. In the entry way are Okaloosa County sheriff’s deputies, two of which are seated by computers where they are scanning people’s IDs and taking their information before they can enter the shelter. The site manager is Deputy Danny Dean. He said that there haven’t been any criminal incidents around the shelter so far because deputies scan IDs to verify if evacuees have any outstanding warrants.
“Right now everything is running like a well-oiled machine and (I) couldn’t be any more impressed with how our community has come together for those coming here to stay with us,” Dean said.
One of those who came forward to help evacuees is Miranda Del Pozo, an algebra teacher at Crestview High School who helped set up and monitor an area in the hallway for kids to play games and have fun as their parents recoup in the gym.
“Since Gov. Scott closed our schools Friday and Monday, I decided that I could help in any way I could, so I came up here. I know one of our shelters was the middle school, so I came up to just see what I could do, and Red Cross said they needed a ‘kid zone,’ so we set up this area,” Del Pozo said while pointing to a red gym mat on the floor in the hallway on top of which were a box of crayons, coloring books, board games and about 10 stuffed animals, including a floppy pink stuffed unicorn.
“We have a TV set up for our kids to watch some family-friendly movies, and so we are just trying to keep these kids because they have been in cars for several days so we wanted to make sure they were taken care of,” she said.
But Del Pozo wasn’t the only good Samaritan. A couple came in with decorative pillows and a blanket, which they handed off to Red Cross volunteers in the entryway of Shoal River as about a dozen sheriff's deputies at tables waiting to answer questions.
Massey said it remains unclear just how many people will arrive at the shelter, although even the 42 there Saturday afternoon was more than he expected.
“I have no anticipation because the storm has not taken a right turn and established it’s path,” Massey said. “If you would have asked me yesterday, I would have said no one would have showed up, but today we do have people.”