Far away from the TV camera crews, in a room underneath Parking Garage No. 6 on the Florida International University campus, 33 Keys evacuees with special needs are being kept at a makeshift shelter, getting by with cots, a few bathrooms, boxed meals, raisins, cold Spaghettios, and an Italian greyhound chihuahua named Josie.
Another 80 are being housed at a pavilion at the Dade County Fairgrounds adjacent to the campus, along with hundreds of other evacuees. Some were homeless in the Keys. Others are residents of Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, which offers transitional and supportive housing for those in need.
They’ve been at FIU for a week — before, during and after Hurricane Irma — and they may have to stay there two weeks more. They wear colored wristbands with their bed numbers, carry belongings in black garbage bags, and their tales make losing power and internet access seem like minor inconveniences.
Gregory Lane Kniseley, a 65-year-old amputee who lives in a trailer in Marathon, rode his wheelchair 3.2 miles in the rain from a holding center at Coral Park High School to the FIU campus last Thursday because he left the group to buy cigarettes and the bus took off without him.
“It took me about two hours, but a nice guy stopped and gave me two waters, two Cokes, and some mini sausages,” Kniseley said. “I finally made it to the college and I’ve been here ever since, waiting to go home. I don’t want to be here, but I’m just taking it day by day. I’ve got 60 bucks, a change of clothes, Doritos, a flashlight, scissors and a bottle of water in my backpack.”
Mickie McElwee, 74, evacuated her first-floor apartment on Flagler Avenue in Key West with her dog, Josie, on Sept. 6. She was bused to the FIU campus and was given a green wristband and Bed No. 16. She said the first few days there were 300 people crammed into an athletic facility with no showers and very few bathrooms.
Some people slept on the floor, others were lucky enough to get cots. They got army surplus meals at first, but by the third day, they were getting better boxed meals.
“Everyone we have dealt with has been very nice and caring, and some of the staff even gave us their food, but it was like sleeping in Grand Central Station with so many people and so few bathrooms,” McElwee said. “They’ve moved us a few times around the campus, trying to find more space.
“It is what it is, and you have to smile, because if you don’t, you’ll cry.”
Josie, meanwhile, has become the mascot of the shelter. All the evacuees have gotten to know her, and she greets them with enthusiastic tail wags and loving licks.
Although McElwee is uncomfortable, she has been moved by the generosity and community spirit among the evacuees.
“I’ll come away from this reminded that people come together when they have to,” she said. “Everyone has been sharing their food and supplies. And it’s biracial in here, all kinds of people, all in the same situation.”
Mary Ann Arnitz, 67, is itching to get home to the Newport Village Apartments in Key Largo. She hears it’s in good condition, and the nearby Publix and K-Mart have reopened. Her motorized wheelchair is broken, so she is struggling to get around.
“They’ve done a pretty good job of dealing with us,” Arnitz said. “Today I got a can of Spaghettios and meatballs. It was cold, but I can’t complain. I have food and shelter.”
Pegs Luft, a Michigan native who has lived in Key West for 41 years, felt the same way. “I am grateful that I got a cot and don’t have to sleep on the floor,” she said. “This is the third or fourth time I’ve been evacuated for a hurricane, so I just go where they tell me and try to make the best of it.”
The evacuees got a visit Wednesday from U.S. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta, a Miami native, Gulliver Prep graduate and former FIU law dean. The shelter is being staffed by teams from Monroe County Fire Rescue, the Florida Department of Health, and the U.S. Department of Health. There are nurses, paramedics and doctors on hand. One of their biggest concerns is refilling medication for evacuees who are running low.
“FIU’s opening the doors of a shelter to the elderly from Monroe County speaks to FIU’s heart,” Acosta said. FIU has been the official shelter for Monroe County residents with special needs since Hurricane Andrew.
Going through a hurricane and being displaced is especially stressful for people with mental and physical disabilities, and anxiety has begun to set in, said Dean Runkle, an assistant program manager at FKOC. “This is beginning to wear on them, being here in limbo, but everyone at the shelter has been very kind, considerate and caring. We hope we don’t have to stay too much longer.”