As Irma Swings West, Officials Scramble to Open Shelters

In that time, residents of southwest Florida went from worried observers of Irma to its primary target for destruction. The slight westward shift in the storm’s trajectory prompted a flurry of last-minute evacuation orders in counties like Collier — where the temple is — leaving little time for residents to pack up and find refuge.

Temple Shalom was opened to evacuees just Saturday night. It had been set up in such a hurry that there were no supplies — not even an emergency coordinator. Several shelters had opened rapidly in the days and hours before and reached their capacity just as quickly.

Ms. Knauer, who decided earlier in the day that she needed to leave her home in East Naples, had learned about the shelter through a maze of phone calls to hurricane help lines. Others had come to the temple as a last resort after having been turned away elsewhere.

“This is a godsend,” said Kathleena Iacchei, who was unsure where she could take her 97-year-old mother when it became clear that their homes were threatened.

The threat of several feet of water surging onto land and property seemed to take everyone here — including emergency officials — somewhat by surprise.

As of Thursday morning, forecasters said Irma was headed for Miami, the densely populated urban center along Florida’s southeastern coast.

But as the day dragged on, the storm’s trajectory crept slowly westward. By Friday, forecasters said its bull’s-eye had swung to Florida’s west coast, placing cities like Naples, Fort Myers and Tampa at greatest risk.


A woman arriving at Alico Arena, a shelter on the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Kate Albers, a spokeswoman for Collier County, said officials received periodic weather updates, each one showing a harsher forecast for the region. With the increasing risk of storm surge, officials were pressed to decide whether to order more evacuations, even while shelter space was quickly running out.

“We’re trying to make those calls as quickly as we can make them,” Ms. Albers said. “Word would get out that there was a shelter opening somewhere and before we could even get out a press release, people were already lined up.”

Temple Shalom reached its capacity late Saturday. Earlier, Ms. Albers said county officials hoped there would be enough space for the county to ride out the storm.

Sheriff Kevin Rambosk of Collier County told The Naples Daily News that the county was well prepared, but he acknowledged that shelters were being overwhelmed by an influx of about 16,000 people.

“We went from a storm affecting predominantly a coast to the largest storm on record, encompassing the entire peninsula of Florida,” he said. “That has never occurred before.”

Nearby Lee County was also busy expanding its mandatory evacuation zone and scrambling to find places to house the displaced.

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, the county opened Germain Arena in Estero to evacuees. Thousands of people flocked to the site, forming what seemed like an endless line to get in.

Lee County had also opened a shelter at Alico Arena on the Florida Gulf Coast University campus. But according to the county’s website late Saturday, Germain and Alico Arenas were two of 11 shelters that were already full.

Dustin Norman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office for Tampa, said he and his colleagues had warned that even a slight shift in the storm’s track could drastically change who would be affected.

That slight shift appeared to ease the minds of some in Miami-Dade County. Many people there had flocked to shelters in anticipation of a thumping from Irma, but on Saturday, they were reassessing their situation after learning they might be spared the brunt of the hurricane.

Inside a shelter at Highland Oaks Middle School, dozens of people lay on cots and blankets in the building’s hallways amid a stench of perspiration and vomit.

Virginia Lopez, an administrative assistant at Barry University in Miami Shores, had had enough.

“We’re going home,” she said, as she loaded her 5-year-old poodle mix, Princess, into her Mazda outside the shelter.

“The storm has moved to Tampa so we’re going to get a lot of rain, but it won’t be as bad,” she said. “I don’t feel so scared.”

Most evacuees, though, seemed resigned to remaining until the storm blew through, fully aware of how quickly the winds can change.

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