Prine Elementary was serving as a shelter for Hurricane Irma on Sunday and, as such, hosted more than 1,000 life stories.
One belonged to Titinysha Scott, who was at Prine with her six children.
“I attended Prine as a child,” said Scott, who evacuated her northwest Bradenton home when she heard that Irma was tracking toward Florida’s Gulf Coast.
In all, some 24,000 people had taken shelter in Manatee schools as of Sunday morning, and they continued to stream in. At about 4:15 p.m., when winds hit about 45 mph, all shelters went on lockdown.
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When Scott arrived at Prine, she was placed in a room with her children on the second floor of the school.
What she encountered was a highly efficient operation. Hallways were lined with mattresses and blankets, upon which babies slept and parents and children played with electronic tablets or watched small TVs.
Scott’s children were amazed to see Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputies as well as National Guardsmen helping them get where they needed to go.
“Everyone has been helpful,” Scott said. “We are so together and we are safe.”
On Saturday night, the family watched “Grey’s Anatomy” on Scott’s phone.
“I’ve never been among so many strangers,” said Scott’s 16-year-old son, Chris, who attends Manatee High School.
On Sunday, Scott and her children had a breakfast of microwave pancakes, a box of cold cereal and a carton of milk.
The scene was similar at Tillman Elementary School in Palmetto, where National Guard troops were helping guide stragglers seeking last-minute shelter.
Principal Marla Massi-Blackmore said she was grateful for their aid, as well as for the cafeteria workers and custodians, who worked together as a “great team” to accommodate more than 700 people.
“We are over capacity but following all directives from the district,” she said.
Manatee County School Superintendent Diana Greene put out the word that no one, nor their pets, would be turned away, and no one was.
Tillman began accepting people Friday afternoon. More than 100 people came the first day, more than 600 in the following two days, and still more filed in Sunday.
“Everything is going pretty smooth,” Massi-Blackmore said. “It’s been a hectic number of days, but we have had no issues everyone is being cooperative.”
‘There is a lot of anxiety’
At Bayshore Elementary, more than 1,700 people packed into the shelter ahead of Hurricane Irma.
“That’s when we stopped counting,” said Jackie West, principal. “There is more than that, and they continue to arrive.”
West said the big influx came when Greene lifted pet restrictions.
“We have 125 dogs, cats, birds, a ferret and one lone squirrel,” she said. “Every one is being very positive and helpful. We’ve had a number of guests step up and volunteer.”
Kim Poirier was one of them. The Alpena, Mich., native has worked in nursing most of her adult life. It’s in her nature to help, even if only to calm nerves.
“There is a lot of anxiety,” she said. “People are scared they won’t have a home to go to. I try and ease their nerves and remind them that we are all in this together. Everything is in God’s hands now, but we can work together as part of one team.”
West said people such as Poirier have made her first experience as a shelter host go that much more smooth.
“People are scared, but everyone is being good to each other and so many are coming up and asking what they can do to help.”
Last resort in Rubonia
The Rubonia Community Center, a former school building, was opened Sunday by shelter manager Morris Goff as a last resort for the community.
Morris was the only one there shortly before noon, but he anticipated that a few people would wander in later.
“All I’m asking is they bring lawn chair or something to be comfy in and some food because it’s a last minute thing,” Goff said.
The last time there was a hurricane, about 18 people stayed in the community center, Goff said.
“I’m glad to be helping, especially the seniors, Goff said. “I grew up with a lot of them they helped raise me.”
Then the coffee ran out
There was a small crisis at the Prine shelter before Irma arrived: the coffee ran out.
“If that’s the worst thing that we encounter, we’ve done pretty good,” said Rebecca Britto, the assistant principal at Able Elementary in Bradenton, who is helping run Prine’s Hurricane Irma shelter this weekend.
No coffee is better than no ice, no toilet paper and no coffee at nearby Bayshore, Britto said.
Prine and its 1,100 evacuees might be having a little better time of it thanks to the skills of Ginger Thomas, who is usually the cafeteria manager at Johnson Middle School but was recruited to run the shelter kitchen at Prine.
“I just decided that nothing was going to get in the way of me helping these people get through this by giving them good meals,” said Thomas, who had snappy responses ready for any wise-guy evacuees.
Reporter Sara Nealeigh contributed to this story.