Nolan Middle was specifically for individuals with special needs. Braden River and Manatee high schools and Mills Elementary School were designated pet friendly shelters.
Mike Barber, the director of communications for the School District of Manatee County, said once any school is closed to become a shelter, all schools are closed. The School District of Manatee County closed all its schools to students Sept. 27.
Evacuees started arriving at the shelters Sept. 27 after evacuation orders were issued for Zone A and Zone B (the flood-prone areas) of Manatee County Sept. 26. The evacuation for Zone A was mandatory while the vacation for Zone B was voluntary but strongly encouraged.
County Administrator Scott Hopes said between the two zones, residents from 120,000 homes could have been seeking shelter at the schools.
Cynthia Saunders, the superintendent of the School District of Manatee County, said about 20 district and school staff members at each school will work shifts at the shelters to ensure safety and security.
Each shelter also had two Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputies, two School District of Manatee County guardians and three medical assistants from the state.
"This is the first time the state has staffed us with medical personnel, which is essential because in many cases, people that show up don't necessarily qualify for special needs, but they have medical conditions," Saunders said. "Once the wind is that certain speed, the ambulances won't run, and it's very difficult to transport them to a hospital.”
Once wind speeds reached 45 mph, Saunders said staff that were at the shelter had to remain in place because it was no longer safe to travel.
While department of health staff and Manatee County Code Enforcement officers were setting up cots and bringing in oxygen tanks and other medical and care supplies, Nolan administrators and staff were preparing other areas of the school.
Principal Scott Cooper and Assistant Principal Lori Jones were walking around the school putting up signage so people would know where to go to register, find the bathroom, get to the cafeteria and more.
Part of Cooper’s responsibilities in getting the shelter ready before it opened at 8 a.m. Sept. 26 was figuring out where to put everyone. For example, he decided the health department should be in the media center so health department staff could have easy access to the entire building, and the room was large enough for its staff, supplies and equipment.
Saunders and Cooper said gyms are the first to be filled when people enter the shelter, but once space runs out, the schools start using hallways and classrooms.
Cooper told his teachers and staff to store away anything important or valuable before Sept. 26 in preparation of the county deciding to open shelters.
Saunders said schools set up a TV area so people could be kept up to date on the weather and news reports, and school cafeteria staff provide meals for everyone three times per day.
“We call a shelter a lifeboat. It’s not a cruise ship,” Saunders said. “It’s a safe structure with climate control, and it’s very friendly and accommodating, but it’s not a luxury yacht. It’s really to make sure basic needs are in place.”
After Manatee County declared a state of emergency on Sept. 24, East County Emergency Services and residents who weren't planning to use the shelters did not wait to begin gathering supplies and bracing for the threat of Hurricane Ian.
Although East County residents said they felt sheltered by their distance from the coast, they didn't want to take safety for granted.
Polo Run's Candice Cancienne went to the Myakka Community Center on Wauchula Road Sept. 26 to pick up sandbags to prevent flooding from the lakes in her neighborhood, which she said can back up onto her lanai and not drain quickly enough.
"The water has nowhere to go," said Chris Cancienne, Candice Cancienne's husband.
Myakka City's Deanna Spencer took home 10 to 15 sandbags for her garage, which flooded during Hurricane Irma.
"It's hard to know what to think about it now," Spencer said on Sept. 26. "We're already 30 miles from the coast. If the storm stays away, we'll be 60 miles from it. I'm trying not to get overly worried or scared. ... We're trying to be a little proactive, in case we need to be."
East County businesses also were taking precautions.
Paul Caruso, an East County resident and commercial fisherman, moved his crab traps to the shallow banks of the Manatee River on Sept. 26 to avoid them becoming entangled at a great depth, something he has not done since Hurricane Irma.
He said despite living on the river near the Fort Hamer Bridge since he was a child, he does not have concerns about flooding from the storm. He said flooding has not been a significant issue since a management change of the dam at Lake Manatee about 15 years ago. The timing of water release is now spaced further apart from a storm.
At Dakin Dairy Farm in Myakka City, Manager Courtney Dakin said staff members were bulldozing the area in order to create sediment barriers. She said during the storm, the cattle would be inside a well-secured barn, huddling together.
"They know what to do more than we do," she said.
Vanessa Baugh, the District 5 representative on the Manatee County Commission, said Manatee County's Emergency Management was dealing effectively with the situation through a massive coordinated effort that includes working with other counties such as Hillsborough County.
“I’ve got to tell you, they are on top of it,” Baugh said. “They’re doing everything that needs to be done to ready ourselves as much as we can.”
Baugh said Lakewood Ranch’s Community Emergency Response Team would be an important added protection. Comprised by members of the community, CERT provides first aid and assistance locally at a time when barriers such as fallen trees might hinder emergency vehicles.
Deputy Chief Paul Wren at the East Manatee Fire Rescue said on Sept. 26, following the department’s emergency declaration, that normal operations were about to change.
He said operational changes began 8 p.m. Sept. 27 with an increase in staffing due to the early arrival of its C shift, which normally begins at 8 a.m.
Wren said the fire rescue was preparing for all scenarios — even a loss of power in the computer system that manages all its workings. He said staff are prepared to deal with the issue the old-fashioned way, with paper maps of the county and pins marked with the numbers of individual fire engines.
On Sept. 26, the department assembled its district operations center inside its Station 1. Calls were ready to be rerouted to the center if a call overload took place at Manatee County’s Emergency Operations Center.