Booker High School has never had to open its doors as a hurricane shelter before. It’s now home to more than 1,200 evacuees.
Booker High School’s cafeteria hummed with quiet activity on Friday afternoon.
School administrators used blue painters tape to mark 20-square-foot rectangles on the floor. Red Cross volunteers helped the first evacuees check in.
But the hum had turned to a cacophony by Saturday morning. Booker High School, among the first of Sarasota’s public schools to open as a shelter, had reached capacity at 1,250 evacuees. That number peaked at 1,343 by Sunday morning — just a fraction of the 16,000 people now seeking refuge at Sarasota County shelters.
“We literally can’t take anyone else,” American Red Cross volunteer and shelter manager Rick King said at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.
Jerry and Sarah Gumbleton had arrived at 1:45 p.m. on Friday to an empty cafeteria. They had driven from Fort Lauderdale to ride out the storm at her grandparents house on Siesta Key earlier in the week. Jerry Gumbleton, Sarah's father, had driven down from Michigan to help her evacuate.
“From everything we have been hearing it was supposed to hit on the east side,” Sarah Gumbleton said.
But then Hurricane Irma’s path changed, and so did the Gumbletons' plans. The storm shifted west, prompting Sarasota County on Friday to call for an evacuation of Sarasota’s barrier islands.
“So now we’re here,” Sarah Gumbleton said.
Although they entered the school as evacuees, they soon offered their services as volunteers, marking floors and helping families find places in the school. At 11 a.m. Saturday morning they sat near the cafeteria doors, watching people stream through the doors, laden with blankets and supplies. Despite signs on the doors informing people that the shelter had reached capacity, dozens of evacuees waited in line at the check-in table.
“We’re lucky we got here early,” Jerry Gumbleton said.
Meanwhile, Ann Green West, Larissa Green and Howard Green sat on folding chairs, a line of people waiting for their placements behind them.
“We live downtown right by the water,” Larissa Green said. “That’s why we’re here.”
Larissa Green moved to the area in 1979. Hurricane Irma isn’t her first hurricane, but it’s the first one that made her seek shelter.
She sat reading the Wall Street Journal while her daughter Ann Green West talked on the phone. A Texas resident, Green West helped host 350 Hurricane Harvey evacuees in the last two weeks at her local church. But now, she was the evacuee.
“It’s an odd turn of events,” Green West said.
Behind them, a steady line of recent arrivals waited for placements in one of Booker High School’s academic buildings.
The building was originally slated to remain relatively empty until Hurricane Irma approached Sarasota, but that plan changed Saturday morning. Volunteers were awakened to an influx of residents seeking shelter.
“It started pretty much at sun up this morning,” King said. “People are starting to take this more seriously. I think a lot of people have been keeping track in the media and watching the patch of the storm, so they know it could potentially go over us.”
Geralene Pinkston said she made the decision to move to a shelter Friday night.
“I kept watching the news and it seemed like the storm was moving farther west,” she said.
Although Booker Principal Rachel Shelley had planned on limiting guests to the hallways, shelter staff began directing families into the classrooms to accommodate later arrivals.
Those who had been directed to a spot in the halls sat in their blue-taped rectangles.
Tawanda Harris, Amira Bryant and Amani Jackson sat on a pile of blankets. They didn’t seem bothered by the their temporary living arrangements. They entertained themselves with coloring books and snacks as fellow evacuees shuffled past.
Even as Booker’s residents settled in, two more shelters were opening in Sarasota at Southside Elementary School, which reached capacity Saturday evening, and Phillippi Shores Elementary School. Although Booker had already reached capacity, King said the best thing residents could do was seek shelter. Sooner, he said, was better than later.
“The best advice for people is to seek shelter at another open shelter,” King said. “I would think that now would be the smartest time to get to a shelter so you get your spot in a shelter and not wait until the last minute.”
This story has been updated from its previous version.