US & World

Long lines form outside Florida shelters as Hurricane Irma nears

People arrive at a shelter at Alico Arena in Fort Myers, Florida, where thousands of Floridians are hoping to ride out Hurricane Irma on September 9, 2017.
People arrive at a shelter at Alico Arena in Fort Myers, Florida, where thousands of Floridians are hoping to ride out Hurricane Irma on September 9, 2017.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

With Hurricane Irma taking aim at Florida's southwestern coast, thousands of desperate and frustrated people waited in line for hours Saturday to get into a minor league hockey arena to ride out the storm.

Dogs barked and children cried in a line that wrapped halfway around 8,400-seat Germain Arena in Estero, Florida. Ambulance sirens drowned out the chatter as medics assisted people overcome by the 84-degree heat.

More than 75,000 people statewide sought refuge at over 400 shelters, mostly schools, community centers and churches.

Evacuees wait to enter the Germain Arena in Estero, Florida on September 9, 2017 as Hurricane Irma approaches.
Evacuees wait to enter the Germain Arena in Estero, Florida on September 9, 2017 as Hurricane Irma approaches.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Few scenes matched what happened in Naples, about 25 miles south. 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?"

Two National Guardsmen carry the belongings of WWII veteran Anthony Gentuso as he and his family arrive at the Germain Arena in Estero, Florida on September 9, 2017 as Hurricane Irma approaches.
Two National Guardsmen carry the belongings of WWII veteran Anthony Gentuso as he and his family arrive at the Germain Arena in Estero, Florida on September 9, 2017 as Hurricane Irma approaches.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On the other side of the state, hotel dishwasher Wilman Hernandez waited with his wife and young son at a Miami Beach bus stop, desperately looking for a way to get to a shelter where they could ride out Hurricane Irma.

Hernandez fears the storm will destroy their first-floor apartment. With no car to join the bumper-to-bumper traffic heading north and no supplies other than water, their options, like those of many low-income Florida residents, were limited.

"I have been calling 311 to get information about shelters that are available and no one answers the phone," Hernandez said. "I need to take my family off the beach and to safety."

The scramble to flee from the path of Irma has been a much different experience for those in different income brackets.

In the upscale coastal community of Rio Vista, where multimillion-dollar homes sit on elegant tree lined streets, many residents had secured their boats, spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on supplies or joined the bumper-to-bumper traffic heading north.

Teddy Morse, a Florida native and owner of a car dealership, spent about $7,500 on two generators, 50 gallons of water, 67 gallons of gas, non-perishable foods and other items. He chartered a plane and sent his wife and two young children to Alabama to stay with family, while he stayed behind to check on his businesses and employees.

"You try to do whatever you can to protect your family ... I wish everybody had the ability to take care of their families the way they want to," said Morse, who was allowing his employees to fill their tanks at the dealership, leave their owns cars in the garage and store personal documents at the office.

Casey Metcalf wraps up empty fuel pumps at a Mobile station in Tampa, Florida as Hurricane Irma approaches on September 9, 2017.
Casey Metcalf wraps up empty fuel pumps at a Mobile station in Tampa, Florida as Hurricane Irma approaches on September 9, 2017.
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

About a mile away in Fort Lauderdale, 18-year-old Jayvontay John was asking strangers for information about which shelters might be open. He doesn't own a cellphone or computer and was having trouble getting basic information.

"It does worry me ... that I'm not going to able to get to the shelter," he said. "I heard the hurricane is really, really bad."

In Miami, advocates for the homeless patrolled the streets Friday, picking up about 400 people and driving them to shelters voluntarily or under the threat of involuntary hospitalization.

"We were driving in the vans and we had people jumping out into the streets to stop us so we would pick them up ... Those folks were coming out of the woodwork, they knew we were out there," said Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust.

Marvin Carter wasn't interested in getting to a shelter. The 62-year-old walked through traffic begging for bus fare, which he hoped would take him a few miles west to an Interstate 95 underpass.

"I've got my sleeping bag ... that's my place," said Carter, adding that he survived Hurricane Andrew in 1992 underneath the freeway.

Having trouble finding a hotel room, members of the Watson family, of St. Petersburg, debate a passing motorist's offer to take in their dogs as they wait on the side of the road while attempting to evacuate Tampa, Florida on September 9, 2017.
Having trouble finding a hotel room, members of the Watson family, of St. Petersburg, debate a passing motorist's offer to take in their dogs as they wait on the side of the road while attempting to evacuate Tampa, Florida on September 9, 2017.
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Back at Germain Arena, 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.

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.

Aaron Elbaz fishes in the churning ocean as Hurricane Irma approaches on September 9, 2017 in Miami Beach, Florida.
Aaron Elbaz fishes in the churning ocean as Hurricane Irma approaches on September 9, 2017 in Miami Beach, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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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Marta Lavandier contributed to this story from Miami Beach. Spencer reported from Palm Beach Gardens and Galofaro reported from Orlando.