A family had just moved to the Florida Keys thinking it was safer than tornado-rich Nebraska.
Two homeless women with four children were the last to leave another shelter.
And a week-old baby girl hasn’t seen anything but a hospital or hurricane shelter.
These were among the 1,000 people — and dozens of pets — finding refuge in Miami-Dade County’s shelter of last resort. Many are from the Florida Keys, who either can’t get back home or have had their homes destroyed by Hurricane Irma. They’re camped out on cots in two pavilions at the Miami-Dade Fairgrounds, places that normally showcase students’ robotic competitions and an ice skating show.
The shelter provides beds, showers and three meals a day, some of them hot. The storm’s survivors may be there for weeks if not longer — until the last person has a place to go.
“This is the consolidation center, where we have a mix of residents from evacuation centers, mostly from Monroe County,” said Roberto Baltodano, a spokesman for the South Florida chapter of the American Red Cross, which runs the shelter. “Our goal is to be here until the last family has connected with resources for long term recovery. … It might take weeks, perhaps months.”
Marjorie Metellus, 35, and Chantrell Manning, 25, know about being the last ones to leave.
The two women relocated to the fairgrounds from another shelter, which the county closed as schools prepare to reopen next week. And to complicate their post-Irma recovery, shortly before the hurricane, the single mothers were left homeless. Between the two of them, they have four children.
“Everyone was packing up their stuff to leave the shelter and we were still there. The staff there looked at us like, ‘They are not gonna go,’” said Metellus. “We were the last two families there, because we have no home to go to. … We didn't know each other before, but our stories are very similar.”
Their little ones, who have since become best friends, played in the sun-dipped parking lot Thursday morning. Geneviene, Metellus’s 3-year-old daughter, began crying about a toy — when Taliyah, Manning’s 4-year-old daughter, consoled her with a hug.
In recent years, they each lived with friends and family after having bad experiences in homeless shelters. “Now we are hoping we can get back on the internet to start applying for help,” said Manning.
Unlike an evacuation center — typically a school gym that shelters people for the short term — the Fairgrounds pavilion is equipped for a longer stay. There are nursing services and people with information on getting assistance from relief agencies. Baltodano emphasized that the Red Cross doesn’t do it alone.
AT&T, for instance, distributed hundreds of free cellphones this week, in addition to providing hot spots with WiFi access.
“They have a month of unlimited calls and text. We are giving the phones away, no questions asked, no ID asked,” said Efren Favela, director of sales for Miami at AT&T.
Those services were helpful to people like Mohammed Salam, who had been living in a rented room at the Willard Gardens Hotel near the Omni. During the storm, the roof collapsed, and the city of Miami subsequently condemned the building.
“We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen or what’s going on,” said Salam, 52, who works at an Italian restaurant in Miami.
Salam and around 20 of his neighbors were relocated to the shelter Monday night. “Well, the first night was hell,” he said. “Everybody was exhausted, but we couldn’t sleep because we were on the floor.”
The conditions improved once cots were provided, he said.
“They really do a great job,” said Salam. “You’re not volunteering with a cruise line where everyone’s having fun.”
Since Monday, Salam and some of his neighbors have submitted an application to FEMA for government assistance, a challenging proposition.
“I have a limited knowledge of how it works,” he said. “People think about the money, too. … People are wondering what’s next.”
Most of the people, however, were from Monroe County, Baltodano said.
The Castillo family, originally from Cuba, moved to the Florida Keys from Nebraska three months ago. They wanted to escape from Nebraska’s cold weather — and tornadoes. They clearly hadn’t researched the Keys’ history with hurricanes.
“We moved to the Keys three months ago and Irma welcomed us,’’ said Layma Castillo, wife of Yunier and mother of a 7- and 4-year-old. “But I’m from Cuba, so I have dealt with hurricanes before.’’
James Tree, 68, and his wife Connie were waiting to return to their home in the Keys. They’ve been fixing the house since 2002, when they bought the home to split their time between the Keys and San Antonio.
For Alayna Zwally, going back home would be her first time in the Florida Keys. The newborn, whose parents live in Key West, was born a week ago at midnight in a Miami hospital.
“She was supposed to be born on Sept. 23, but I guess the stress from the hurricane, and from all the news, pushed her out earlier,” said Dana Zwally, her mother.
Hours later, she held Alayna in her arms, unsure when they could return home. The shelter volunteers provided the family with a tent that has become their small home.
“Some people told me that there were many trees down and we don’t have power, but the nearby island got it worse than we did and they are on the way home,” Zwally said. “That’s why we probably will be the last to get out of here.”