As Hurricane Irma headed toward Florida, early predictions placed the massive storm on a track toward Miami.
Andrew and Amy Sutton, along with 6-year-old daughter Ashlynn, had already driven to Georgia to escape Irma on Wednesday morning.
That’s when family alerted them of Irma’s track along Florida’s east coast.
So the Sutton’s, after a nine-hour journey to cross the Florida/Georgia line, turned around.
“We had gotten back that night (and) it had shifted to the other side of Florida,” 28-year-old Andrew Sutton said.
Back in Bradenton, the family on Saturday was preparing for Irma at Braden River High School, one of 22 open shelters in Manatee County. As of Saturday afternoon, the massive hurricane was on a path toward Manatee County, according to weather forecasts.
“We brought lots of cleaning supplies, water and food,” Andrew Sutton said.
Before they settled on returning home, the Suttons contemplated evacuating Florida for a second time.
“I wanted to go back up there, but then we started reading people were on the side of the road,” 27-year-old Amy Sutton said.
Andrew Sutton added: “Broken down. It was like, ‘No way.’”
That, in conjunction with their Bradenton home listed in Zone A, a high-risk flood area, meant the Suttons, natives to the area with Andrew from Bradenton and Amy from Sarasota, were heading to their first hurricane shelter.
Seeing the devastation Hurricane Harvey brought to the Houston area in Texas is something that’s clued many to prepare for Irma.
“It’s registering as a reality to people,” Andrew Sutton said.
The Sutton’s were one of several families to take shelter at Braden River High before it closed to capacity.
Earlier on Saturday, Manatee County emergency management chief Sherilyn Burris said nobody would get turned away from a shelter, including those with pets.
By Saturday afternoon, Manatee County government’s Twitter account announced every shelter is pet-friendly.
To receive admission with a pet, pet owners must have a leash, crate or container and up-to-date vaccinations/shots, and the pets stay in a separate room. At Braden River High, animal services representatives were on hand to assist people with pets.
One woman, her shirt showing signs of sweat, tugged along three bullmastiffs on their leashes to the front door of Buffalo Creek Middle School looking for shelter. A young boy pulled a dolly with three folded crates behind her.
She wasn’t alone. Several people with leashed and crated dogs arrived at the school’s doors.
Others were lined up with their supplies at their sides, waiting to be allowed indoors. Others hustled across the sidewalk carrying armloads of supplies into the shelter, sweat dripping down their faces. Some shared smiles as they passed each other.
At Buffalo Creek Middle School, the Red Cross was using nearly every spare space to hold evacuees. Classrooms, the gymnasium and the cafeteria were holding nearly 1,000 people at the school in Palmetto, shelter manager Leo Martinez said.
Buffalo Creek was still seeing a large number of people come through the doors around 11 a.m., but they weren’t turning anyone away.
“We have a lot of traffic, people waiting till the last minute to come to the shelters,” Martinez said.
Martinez expected Buffalo Creek to reach capacity. They started taking pets in crates as Virgil Mills Elementary School across the parking lot started filling up.
Martinez said people were coming to Buffalo Creek from all over, including Miami.
Principal James Mennes at Virgil Mills said the school was holding around 1,000 people and more than 300 pets by noon on Saturday.
He said the check-in process had been going smoothly.
Nearby neighborhoods have an elderly population, Mennes said, and they showed up as soon as the doors opened.
“The second we opened at noon yesterday when the decision was made, they showed up ready to go. They’ve really been taking care of each other,” Mennes said.
As Herald reporters stood inside, a couple came inside from a nearby neighborhood and volunteered to help out at the shelter. Mennes gave them quick orders and sent them off. Minutes later, a donation of food — bread and bananas — started rolling in on dollies.
Though they had to open shelters quickly, school district officials held meetings and were prepared when they got the call, Mennes said.
“We were prepared to take in 1,400 guests, and we have about that, so we’re at capacity but we’re ready to go,” Mennes said.
Manatee County School District spokesperson Mike Barber said people arriving at shelters that are capacity, which includes Braden River High, Manatee High, Oneco Elementary, Kinnan Elementary and Braden River Middle, as of Saturday afternoon, will go to the lesser-populated shelters.
“We’re expecting a larger influx (Saturday) than what we had (Friday),” Barber said. “So the key is (Saturday), directing people to those shelters that are not full and have space available.”
Once winds hit 45 miles per hour in Manatee County, emergency staff and sheriff deputies won’t be on the roads to assist. Instead, they’ll be bunkered down to wait out Irma. Shelters will go into lockdown when winds reach those speeds, Nick Azzara, information outreach manager for Manatee County said.
At the shelters, people seeking cover are getting an additional sense of security with National Guard soldiers arriving on Gov. Rick Scott’s orders.
“When they showed up (Friday), it was a total surprise,” Barber said. “The shelter people that I’ve talked to had no idea they were coming. It really made them feel a lot better.”
Barber, who has been in Florida for 50 years, said he’s never seen anything like Irma before.