The worst part of a hurricane is not the winds; it's the waiting. As a Floridian, I'm accustomed to an active outdoor lifestyle; killing bugs, sneezing from pollen and sweating a lot. Instead, I've spent almost the entire summer cowering in a safe room. The inactivity has taken its toll; by the time Jeanne roiled around, I was more interested in watching Weekend at Bernie's before the power went out than in keeping track of the weather forecasts.
I heard a lot of criticism from weather forecasters about complacency taking the place of acute anxiety, which is bad for ratings. So I began to wonder if hurricanes were becoming routine. And I began to wonder about people who can't hunker down in their own homes, such as mobile-home residents, tourists and those besieged with relatives. For those people, the only recourse is a public shelter.
Was it getting easier for hurricane refugees the fourth time around? Was finding out, in fact, a way to get out of my own prehurricane chores? I decided to find out.
On Sept. 25 at 2:56 p.m., I pull up in front of Winter Springs High School, a designated Seminole County shelter. There is plenty of parking; in fact, a kid is riding his bike around the mostly empty lot. A lady lugging a laundry basket walks toward the entrance.
"I've seen them make several trips with dollies," says shelter manager Dominick Marchese, a Red Cross volunteer and local resident. His son, Adam, an ROTC member, sits at a long table near the front doors helping people register. It is Marchese's third storm in a month and a half, and he is in until Monday, at the earliest.
The shelter can hold 2,000 people, which Marchese says "would be a very tight fit. I had 570 for Frances. Instead of residents coming in and taking up the least amount of room ... you have blow-up mattresses, chairs. With that much stuff, a shelter isn't a lifeboat, it's a sinking lifeboat."
But it is quiet, neat, spacious and well-lit. And there's food, although this time around there is not enough money for hot meals and everyone's eating cereal and sandwiches. If the lights go out, there is a generator. I don't know what I expected; some kind of cellblock, perhaps, with people drinking out of tin cups and singing "Sweet Charity." Instead, the Winter Springs shelter seems more like an after-school event for grown people, with adolescent housing.
"I'm the mayor of Winter Springs High School," Marchese says, nodding towards his bullhorn, which he uses for "town meetings," at which he sets the rules. "I try to make it a fun experience."
The volunteers include one administrator from the school (not there yet), one maintenance engineer, two or three kitchen staff, a few teachers, one or two Winter Springs police officers, two Mormons, the ROTC kid and a ham radio operator. Marchese is the only Red Cross rep, and after 16 years he has worked in his hometown a total of three times: for Charley, Frances and Jeanne. He's had a few close calls, too, one involving emergency medical transports 30 minutes before Charley's eye hit.
"When do people really start piling in here?" I ask.
"One half hour after the first rain bands," answers Steve Dick, the volunteer ham radio operator.
I glance through the double glass doors. It's drizzling weakly; I can still see the kid riding his bike outside.
The gymnasium is divided by a white net into an "adult side" for senior citizens and single people, and a family side. There are several enclaves of air mattresses, coolers and camping chairs. On the adult side, one lady is knitting, there are a few card games and several people are lying down reading or sleeping. The family side is sparsely populated. In a corner next to the bleachers, one woman and her daughter use the blue school mats to create a sofa. Ann, who lives in a "hunting cabin," has been here before. She wanders over to talk to us.
"Charley was my first time under martial law (curfew). But we have a wonderful time. We brought everything."
Marchese nods resignedly.
A hall of classrooms beyond the shelter entrance serves as an overflow area. It's where the volunteer staff sleep, and where the kids play in a "rumpus room" lined with mirrors. Toward the back of the school, a ham radio is set up and protected by a concrete block wall. Dick, who works as a computer specialist at the University of Central Florida, says it's the only way to communicate if the power goes out.
"During the worst part of Frances a police officer drops these two guys off ... I don't know, they ran out of gas or something and they wanted to call a cab," he says.
Back in my car, I see a woman jog by with her dog on a leash. On the car radio the announcer says "residents are in a state of denial," and that "this storm is the worst of the three." Through my car window, lightly sprinkled with rain, I see less than half a dozen people heading toward the Winter Springs entrance.
It is 4:20 p.m. and the 6 p.m. curfew is approaching. I drive out to Highway 17-92 and head north behind a guy on a motorcycle with a U.S. Army backpack.
At DeBary Elementary in Volusia County at 5:05 pm, I meet Claire O'Connor, the assistant principal of Enterprise Elementary, manning the registration table. Unlike the Winter Springs shelter, DeBary's has the eating and recreation quarters spread out behind the registration table in the combination cafeteria/auditorium. Dead center behind the registration table, two TVs, displaying a colorful spiraling blob-like Jeanne, are stationed on opposite ends of the cafeteria walls. Senior citizens fill the long tables, playing cards.
To the left is the stage, where I see one child playing and an older man stretched out in a lawn chair reading. To the right, separated by a curtain, are the rest of the sleeping quarters. Purple tape lines the floor to partition off the walkway. There is a steady buzz of chatter and a lot of interaction between the residents, which O'Connor says is a "true reflection of the DeBary community."
She says that by noon they were already at full capacity, 164 people. "They were on line here at 6 a.m." Jeanne was O'Connor's first hurricane, but she stresses that the Volusia County school district has administrators pulling shifts at all the shelters.
Unlike Seminole County, Volusia still has money to provide hot meals, "at least until the power goes out," O'Connor says. They had no Red Cross workers, but plenty of food service volunteers, teachers and two police officers.
She introduces me to Bill and Rosie Kobes, residents of the Highland Estates mobile home park, who have now stayed at DeBary Elementary for three hurricanes. "It's our second home," Rosie says. "Everyone is very nice." She nods toward the card players. "It's like Las Vegas."
"There were 215 people here for Frances," Bill says.
"And at 4 a.m., everyone starts snoring," Rosie adds.
As I drive home, at 6 p.m., the radio tells me that the bridges from Volusia County are about to be closed and that wind gusts up to 40 mph are sweeping through Lake Mary. I drive through still streets with only intermittent rain and the sun still trying show behind the gathering storm clouds.
Lately Florida weather hasn't been that great, but it hasn't been that bad either. After hearing what Jeanne did to Haiti, it seems as though we are only playing at hurricanes, dressing the whole experience up with fancy weather equipment and dire warnings. No one I spoke to at the shelters had lost more than a tree and some trim around their houses.
When Central Florida is good, it's very, very good. When it's bad, it's just a hurricane shelter.