John Galardi planned to hunker down in his Kendall home with his wife and two children during Hurricane Irma.
But at 8 a.m. on that Friday as the storm approached, the South Dade Middle School principal got a call: Storm shelters were filling up and the county needed to open his school to evacuees.
Galardi drove down to Homestead and went to work readying the school — for how many people, he didn’t yet know. “I had no clue if it was going to be 100, a thousand, I didn’t know,” Galardi said.
In the end, it was at least 2,500 in a school built for 1,200 students.
Miami-Dade and Broward campuses will return to their intended use Monday. School is back in session.
But before and during the storm, and into the aftermath, school employees worked tirelessly, helping convert places of learning into safe havens for storm evacuees. In the case of South Dade Middle, people came in droves from Homestead and nearby Florida City, clutching their most valued possessions, lugging blankets and pillows, carrying trash bags, duffel bags and suitcases full of food and clothes. Mothers held their infants, elders brought their oxygen masks. Some spoke only Spanish, others only Haitian Creole. And all of them would be stuck at South Dade Middle until the hurricane passed.
“I felt the need to always drive an appearance of being very calm,” Galardi said, “but certainly 2,500 people in your building and making sure that they felt safe, that they were being well fed, was a monumental task.”
The cafeteria manager and the lead custodian showed up to help — and so did six teachers, who all volunteered for the exhausting but vital duty. Special education teacher Jessica Neely got to work with her colleagues registering the evacuees. Many had already gone from shelter to shelter, only to be sent away because they were already full.
“This was kind of their last hope,” Neely said. “They were thankful to finally get through the door to know they had gotten to a safe place.”
Some of the evacuees were crying, others’ hands were shaking. Some were so anxious they couldn’t fill out the registration forms, Neely said.
As they moved into the school, families lined the hallways, some resting on blankets and pillows, a lucky few stretched out on air mattresses. They were packed in tightly, with little space between blankets. School officials were afraid to open up many classrooms in case the hurricane winds shattered the windows.
That night, a pregnant woman went into labor and had to be taken to the hospital.
And that was only the beginning.
For nearly 72 hours, a small staff of school employees, Miami-Dade police, National Guardsmen and Red Cross volunteers worked around the clock to keep the evacuees safe. All the while, the hurricane bore down on South Florida, battering the school with strong winds and driving rain.
It was an ordeal that played out at schools across the county. As Miami-Dade scrambled to accommodate more than 30,000 people ahead of Hurricane Irma, the opening of school shelters got off to a rocky start. At some locations, the Red Cross failed to show up; at others, evacuees waited outside in the heat for shelters to open. Amid the chaos, school principals, police, cafeteria workers, custodians and teachers stepped in to make sure the shelters ran as smoothly as possible.
“I’m exceedingly proud of our leaders and support staff because they showed up, they spoke up clearly and they filled in whatever gaps existed,” Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said. “I saw a lot of examples of volunteer work done by our staff, parents of kids who attend our schools ... a lot of unsung heroes.”
The county is responsible for opening storm shelters, most of which are housed in schools. In total, 42 Miami-Dade schools served as evacuation shelters during Irma, likely the largest number ever. Responsibility for operating the shelters varies by location, with the Red Cross or another county-designated agency — but not schools officials — serving as shelter managers, Carvalho said.
Faced with an unprecedented evacuation order affecting more than 600,000 residents, many of the shelters did not operate according to plan, however. County police rushed to understaffed shelters on Friday evening and the National Guard arrived around midnight, but by then school principals had largely taken the lead.
At Shenandoah Middle School near Coral Gables, Principal Bianca Calzadilla kept a shelter running for 315 evacuees with the help of two volunteer teachers, custodians and a cafeteria worker, along with fire rescue, Miami-Dade police and National Guardsmen. “We were all hands on deck,” she said.
Teachers helped custodians and cafeteria workers restock bathrooms and pass out food, Calzadilla said.
“I think the fact that everybody came together made me believe more in humanity and just confirmed everything I do on a daily basis,” she said.
Some schools were more prepared than others for the influx of evacuees. They had been designated as primary shelters, and were already stocked with two days worth of food and water. Other schools, like South Dade Middle, were secondary locations — activated only after primary shelters had filled to capacity.
At South Dade, it was unclear who was supposed to be running the show, so Galardi stepped up. “I wasn’t sure if that’s what I was supposed to do, but in the heat of the moment I thought someone needed to take charge,” he said.
Galardi also had help from another school administrator, Redland Middle School Principal Gregory Beckford. When Galardi drove home on Saturday morning to pick up his family and bring them to the shelter, Beckford took over shelter operations. Accompanied by a schools police officer and National Guardsmen, Beckford went from hallway to hallway reassuring families and giving them evacuation instructions.
If hurricane winds started breaking windows and forcing open doors, everyone would take shelter in the stairwells, Beckford said, children with their mothers first, then elderly people, and finally males over the age of 16.
By the evening, the primary concern had shifted from weather to security.
No one had been searched for weapons before entering the shelter on Friday, Miami-Dade Police Sgt. Armando Borrego warned the staff at an evening meeting. But the night was uneventful. After patrolling the halls for an hour, one Miami-Dade police officer sat down with a group of school kids to play Go Fish. Some kids wrote thank you cards for the National Guard.
The next day, it became clear that the storm wasn’t going to do as much damage as originally feared. After a night of sleeping on linoleum and baking in the heat — the air conditioning went off when the school lost power Saturday night — at least 150 evacuees left the shelter over the objections of school staff and law enforcement, who begged them to stay until the storm had passed.
But overall, Galardi said, he was happy the school had been able to accommodate everyone who needed shelter.
“We just did what we needed to do,” he said. “I love this community and there were people who needed help, and we provided them the help that they sought. I’m glad we were able to.”