Booker High School had never had to open its doors as a shelter before. As Hurricane Irma approached Florida, the school became a home to more than 1,300 evacuees.
| 9:10 a.m. September 15, 2017
Booker High School’s cafeteria hummed with quiet activity on Friday afternoon, but that hum had turned to a cacophony by Saturday morning.
“It started pretty much at sun up,” American Red Cross volunteer and shelter manager Rick Kind said at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.
Booker High School, among the first of Sarasota’s public schools to open as a hurricane shelter, reached capacity at more than 1,300 evacuees — just a fraction of the 19,000 people who sheltered in one of 14 Sarasota County schools.
Through a partnership with Sarasota County government and Sarasota Public Schools, schools were opened as shelters and staffed with district and county employees. McIntosh Middle School Principal Harriet Moore and Booker High School Principal Rachel Shelley acted as Booker’s shelter managers.
“It was nonstop,” Moore said. “It was unbelievable — like a well-oiled machine. You would think we had done this 15 times.”
But they hadn’t. Booker had never been opened as a shelter.
The cafeteria’s tables were moved aside. Its floor was a jigsaw puzzle of cots and folding chairs.
Jerry and Sarah Gumbleton arrived at 1:45 p.m. Friday to an empty cafeteria. They had driven from Fort Lauderdale to ride out the storm on Siesta Key earlier in the week. Jerry Gumbleton, Sarah’s father, had come from Michigan to help her evacuate.
But Hurricane Irma’s path changed, and so did their plans. Irma shifted west, prompting the county to call for an
evacuation of barrier islands on Friday.
Although they entered the school as evacuees, they offered their services as volunteers, marking floors and helping families find places in the school.
“We’re lucky we got here early,” Jerry Gumbleton said.
Temporary living areas were bisected by lines of residents. They waited for spots in an academic building next door where the situation was no less chaotic.
The hallway had been partitioned into 20-square-foot living spaces with blue painters tape. The sounds of air mattress pumps drowned out the footsteps of arrivals shuttling their belongings down a narrow path between evacuees. People weaved between each other to find their place.
“Now imagine that in the dark,” McIntosh’s Moore said.
Booker lost power between 5 and 6 p.m. Sunday.
It was dark and crowded. Many of the motion sensors on the sinks stopped working after the power went out. Staff had to shuttle food to and from buildings.
Yet, even in the midst of logistical chaos, community reigned.
“The way that everyone came together — this community, this staff — unbelievable,” Moore said Tuesday. “I’m still exhausted. But I’m just reveling on how beautifully they handled everything.”
The worst of Hurricane Irma hit Sarasota late Sunday night.
“When I walked through telling people that the storm is over ... people were elated,” Moore said.
With the storm gone, priorities shifted. After hosting 19,000 people, Sarasota’s schools had to prepare for their primary charges — students.
Carpets had to be vacuumed, restrooms cleaned, classrooms put back together. Booker’s head custodian, Carolyn Reddin, arrived Friday morning and didn’t leave until 2 p.m. Monday. She and her staff returned Tuesday.
It was hard for Shelley to articulate her relief as she surveyed Reddin’s work. She walked into the cafeteria Tuesday for the first time since evacuees left.
“I am just blown away — tears of joy,” she said, wiping her eyes.
It wasn’t easy for Shelley to watch her school overwhelmed for the sake of safety. Yet, she was happy Booker could open its doors. For her, Booker is what it is because of the community.
“This is one of those opportunities to give back — and see how well they took care of this facility, you know they are appreciative,” she said.
All in all, shelter staff throughout Sarasota reported residents respected facilities.
Schools will reopen Monday, giving schools, some of which were still without power on Wednesday, time to recover.
“We do have some expensive cleanup to do,” Brookside Middle School Principal Matthew Gruhl said. Brookside was one of the county’s pet-friendly shelter and hosted about 500 animals.
“We had pets (as of) Friday morning,” Gruhl said. “When you have that many pets, you just have some cleanup to do.”
Back at Booker, Shelley said she is anxious to return her school to its primary objective.
“We’ve just got to get ready for school now,” Shelley said, “get back to the business of learning.”