The family of five evacuees had spent only a night at South Dade Middle School, crammed into packed hallways with blankets lining the floors, when they decided they’d rather take their chances with the storm.
Around 3 p.m. Saturday, they approached National Guardsmen securing the school-turned shelter with blankets and duffel bags in hand. In Spanish, they told the guardsmen they lived nearby and that they wanted to leave. It would be more comfortable to wait out the storm in their apartment, they reasoned. Outside, the rain had let up and the wind had died down. It was hard to believe a storm was still approaching.
After asking a few questions about where their home was located and what preparations they had made, the guardsmen let them go.
As forecasters narrowed Hurricane Irma’s path up along the state’s west coast, Miami’s own panic began to relax into cabin fever and, some officials feared, complacency.
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In Miami-Dade’s shelters, some packed past capacity, hundreds decided that the storm’s minor squalls, yet to bloom into tropical storm winds, were worth braving rather than staying cooped up inside, though thousands more evacuated to shelters Saturday to take their place.
Local authorities issued curfews in seven Miami-Dade cities and Broward, warning residents to stay indoors overnight. Many warned that though storm surge projections had markedly improved for Florida’s southeastern coast, Irma remained a sprawling 300-miles-wide behemoth that would soon engulf the state in high winds and torrential rains.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez warned that storm surge flooding was still a threat as of Saturday afternoon: “We still consider you to be in danger,” he said. “I would urge you to go to a shelter and evacuate.”
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho also cautioned Miami-Dade residents in shelters against returning home. “Despite the fact that we may not take a direct hit, the worst of the weather is yet to come,” he said. “Our advice is to stay put, stay where you are. Driving conditions are going to be bad.”
At South Dade Middle School, where about 2,500 initially sought shelter, about 500 evacuees had decided to leave by 7 p.m., school officials said. Many had already spent an uncomfortable night sleeping on the linoleum floors, shivering in the cranked-up air conditioning, trashcans close to overflowing. Eight other schools, including North Miami Middle School, G. Holmes Braddock Senior High School and W.R. Thomas Middle School, all saw evacuees leave, said Carvalho, who visited the sites on Saturday.
Many appeared to have been spurred by the increasingly confident forecasts that Irma, as it swung toward Florida from battering Cuba’s coast, would shift west instead of crushing the Miami metro area as had been feared earlier in the week.
It was unclear how many had left Miami-Dade’s 41 other shelters Saturday. County communications director Michael Hernandez said the county had admitted about 29,000 people to the county-run shelters along with a thousand pets, but that the county did not track how many might have left. In South Dade, home to many undocumented immigrants, fears of deportation, despite the county’s assurances, may have also prompted evacuees to hedge their bets elsewhere.
Other shelter locations, however, remained packed. Some 4,000 new people evacuated to shelters in Miami-Dade on Saturday, Carvalho said, bringing the total up from about 24,000 Friday night to close to 28,000 by Saturday evening.
In Miami’s northern neighborhoods, there was no sense of a diminishing threat. At Allapattah’s Georgia Jones-Ayers Middle School, the shelter area was housing 203 people though it only had capacity for 150, said Audrey Edmonson, the county commissioner representing the area.
At Edison Senior High, an additonal 600 people wanted shelter, prompting the school to create more space. “They opened the gym so they could get more people in,” Edmonson shortly before 7 p.m. “And I can see people walking toward the school right now.”
Miami’s Northwestern Senior High reported more than 1,000 people inside Saturday — 1,124, to be exact — and a steady stream of buses brought in people from homeless shelters throughout the day.
At South Dade, the 2,000-odd remaining evacuees who remained passed the time on their phones and tablets. Some wandered into the school’s interior courtyard to get fresh air. On an open walkway on the school’s second floor, a group of five teenagers blasted Latin music and taught each other dance moves from their respective countries — Peru, Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia.
They had spent most of their time talking, sleeping and eating. They all said they weren’t worried about the storm.
“My mom made me come here,” said Jason Cairoza, 16.
“Right now, no,” said Geyssler Chacon-Stevens, 18. “But once the power goes out we’re all gonna be like, “My phone!’”