In Manatee County, evacuees rush to shelter from Hurricane Matthew

A line had already formed before 4 p.m. Thursday outside Manatee High School by those seeking shelter from Hurricane Matthew. The evacuees had driven in a caravan from Fort Pierce on Florida’s east coast and spent all morning in search of somewhere to stay before ending at the school in Bradenton.

There were adult couples with their children, young couples — whole families and their friends.

The group of more than 30 people was just one glimpse into those rushing to Manatee County for shelter from the hurricane’s wrath. The potentially catastrophic Matthew may be a Category 4 or 5 hurricane before striking the Florida coast starting Thursday night, according to Weather.com.

Hurricane Matthew had already caused death and destruction in Haiti, killing at least 108 people with the number expected to rise. In Cuba, hundreds of thousands of people in the island nation’s eastern provinces were evacuated. No loss of life related to the hurricane has been reported so far, according to the Miami Herald.

Four shelters opened locally at 4 p.m. Thursday and, according to a news release from Manatee County government, the county announced that Braden River High School, 6545 State Road 70 E., Bradenton, had also opened at 5 p.m. as a host shelter for evacuees.

By late Friday, local shelters were housing about 300 evacuees, according to schools Superintendent Diana Greene.

Rain began to drizzle on the school’s parking lot, soon turning into a full pour. Families, most of them Latinos, huddled together and chatted. A girl at the end of the line held a pillow and brown blanket tightly to her chest. Antonio Zubieta, 51, was among those who leaned against Manatee High School’s brick exterior as they all waited for the American Red Cross to let them in.

Zubieta, of Fort Pierce, said he helped lead the caravan of family and friends to Manatee County.

“I felt completely desperate because we couldn’t find any hotels,” he said in Spanish. “All morning, we were looking for a place to stay.”

Zubieta’s friend, Jose Matilde Otero, said he was thankful for shelter from Hurricane Matthew.

“This is my first hurricane,” said Otero, who earns a living as a farm worker. “You have seen other places and how they’ve been destroyed. You try your best to defend yourself ... prevent it from happening to you.”

Once they were admitted, American Red Cross personnel registered the families and assigned them each a room. There were no beds, as those seeking shelter were encouraged to bring their own bedding materials.

“They’re a little hectic, but we’re organized,” said American Red Cross shelter manager Patricia Cerefice, adding that those seeking shelter should remember to bring their medications, phones, chargers and bedding material.

Manatee High School Principal Don Sauer kept busy Thursday with American Red Cross personnel. At one point, he brought two carriers containing cats to a separate room. He faced the carriers to each other so the two cats could keep each other company.

Sauer described the shelter efforts as “very good.”

“We’ve got them checked in and into rooms,” he said. “And hopefully they’re resting and they’re able to get together as a family and enjoy the time that they’re here.”

Amaris Castillo: 941-745-7051, @AmarisCastillo