Hurricane Irma: Pinecrest Elementary School shelter offers unique blend of cultures in a small space
A microwave dings, signaling food is ready as a mother opens the door to retrieve a meal for her children.
About 20 feet away, an Immokalee family plays the card game Sequence, each sitting on a foldup chair as a blue-and-white cooler serves as their table.
They're among more than 800 evacuees in Pinecrest Elementary School, one of more than a dozen Collier County evacuation shelters for those seeking refuge from Hurricane Irma.
Mark Tesar and his wife, Hilda, left their Golden Gate Estates home Saturday with their two children, ages 11 and 5.
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They went to four shelters before finding room at Pinecrest.
"With the family, I don't ever plan to stay in the house," said Mark Tesar, 46, who oversees an 800-acre tomato farm in Immokalee.
"I don't want them in harms way. Plus there's strength in numbers, with EMS and police here."
Evacuees at other shelters stay in large school gyms or in Germain Arena, an even bigger space. At Pinecrest, evacuees share classrooms amid school computers, stacked chairs and homework assignments posted on a wall.
"Look at us soaring" reads one wall board, above a chart marking students' progress. In another corner, a teacher's desk holds a ceramic container with an ample supply of sharpened golden No. 2 pencils.
Tesar recalled Hurricane Wilma that made landfall in Collier County in 2005. He and his family went to a shelter at Palmetto Ridge High School that was in the large gym.
"That's what I was envisioning after Wilma," he said of Pinecrest. "This is nice."
Carol Grant, 81, spent the night trying to sleep on a plastic blue classroom chair. Old age made it too difficult to lay down on a hard floor and even more difficult to get back up.
Lack of sleep didn't keep her from staying in high spirits, but she thought the shelter could have at least provided cots for the elderly.
"I'm just glad to be here," she said. "We just have to survive and go with the flow."
Grant was with her husband, Ben Grant, 83. The two celebrated their 60th anniversary in February.
"I would be totally lost without her. I can't even think about it," he said.
"I wouldn't be able to get a water bottle open without him," she responded.
Carol and Ben Grant left their North Naples home at noon Friday after watching their neighbors slowly trickle out. After 23 years in Naples, this is the first time they've ever evacuated.
They drove to two shelters, but both were full. A National Guardsman told them he wasn't sure which shelters still had room but that their best bet was to head east to Immokalee. The Grants had never been to Immokalee before, so the Guardsman input the address of Pinecrest Elementary School into their GPS.
Five shelters opened Saturday morning, and the Collier County Government website listed six available shelters as of 12:24 p.m. in Collier and Lee counties. But schools were filling up quickly, and the website was not being updated. A sign on Immokalee Road and Oil Well Road promised shelter at Corkscrew Elementary and Middle schools, but both were turning people away.
Several people at the Pinecrest shelter said they had driven to multiple sites before finding space in Immokalee. With many gas stations out of fuel and the storm beginning to take shape, it was a stressful situation for all.
The Grants said they were scared.
"We knew we were late. It was our fault," Carol Grant said.