Under a light rain, hundreds of Lower Keys residents trudged into Key West High on Saturday morning, hauling trash bags, rolling suitcases and lugging bottles of water.
Finally, Hurricane Irma’s track had proved frightening enough to force them to seek refuge in Key West’s shelter of last resort.
“I really didn’t want to take the chance. I should have left sooner,” said Lena LaTorre, 33, who originally planned to ride out the storm in her apartment with her mother, boyfriend, three children and dog.
After days of ordering mandatory evacuations, authorities on Saturday opened shelters of last resort at Key West High and three other sturdily-built schools throughout the Florida Keys. With predictions dire and the storm aimed directly at the Lower Keys, people responded in droves, often alerted by social media.
The island chain’s most popular town is Key West, and the high school is built to withstand Category 5 winds. As a shelter of last resort, authorities had no supplies to hand out, and on Saturday morning, people began staking their spots inside the basketball gym, some already laid out on inflatable beds surrounded by bags of snacks and plastic bottles of water. Many had dogs inside crates.
The refugees were mostly a cross section of blue-collar people who felt they couldn’t afford to leave.
Wilson Ortega, 25, sat on the ground, a small white dog named Snoopy. The dog belongs to the family who rents Ortega a room – they left Snoopy in his care – and he didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Ortega flipped on his phone and began to talk to his family back in Guatemala. He’s lived on Stock Island for five years, working as a house painter. “I’m alone here,” Ortega said as he tried to calm Snoopy, who barked at other dogs trotting past him.
For Michael LaPlante, 61, the shelter opening came as a relief. He lives on boat off Key West, but the motor stopped working. He stopped a Key West police officer around 3 a.m. on the street and was directed to the school.
“I thought, Oh my god, I’m saved,” said Michael LaPlante, who lives aboard a boat.
The other shelter sites are: Coral Shores High School; 89951 Overseas Hwy; Plantation Key (mile marker 89.9 ocean side); Marathon High School; 350 Sombrero Road; Marathon (mile marker 50 ocean side); and Sugarloaf School; 225 Crane Blvd.; Sugarloaf Key, (mile marker 19 gulf side).