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More than 32,000 sought a shelter in Lee County

By Staff | Sep 20, 2017

The largest evacuation and sheltering operation in Lee County’s history took place during Hurricane Irma with more than 32,000 people and 1,700 pets seeking shelter at 16 locations at the peak of the storm.

Five of the 16 shelters were not schools of the district. Those included Germain Arena, Alico Arena, Veterans Park Recreation Center, North Fort Myers Rec Center and Estero Rec Center.

School Board Chairman Mary Fischer said 22,000 people and more than 1,000 pets used one of their schools as shelter. She said there was absolutely a necessity to clean the schools once everyone left the shelters.

“We clean up every day when we have 2,000 kids,” Fischer said.

She compared the cleanup situation to an event such as a concert at the Civic Center.

“If you go to the Civic Center and go to a concert there is a mess afterwards. People have different habits,” Fischer said. “There are always people on their own agenda and we deal with that.”

According to Lee County Communication Specialist Timothy Engstrom contracts with cleaning companies are in place and cleanup was already underway as of Sept. 19.

“Buildings used as shelters will be returned to their pre-storm condition as soon as possible,” he wrote in an email.

Fischer said they have people in the schools doing a deep cleaning, so they are ready to open on Monday, Sept. 25.

“We are hopeful. We are right on target to open on Monday,” she said.

The overall response Fischer heard from the community who sought a school as refuge was how well organized the facility was and how safe they felt while there. She said the lovely emails were “complementary” on how well “they took care of people and organized and managed the situation.”

“Our facilities are always in good repair and hopefully welcoming,” Fischer said. “The piece that really made me feel so proud was our staff members that worked at those schools volunteered their time and stayed and helped those in need of assistance and kept things going.”

With the School District housing anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 kids a day at a school, she said they are used to keeping things moving smoothly, which worked in their advantage when the schools were turned into a shelter.

“This is something that we do every day,” Fischer said. “I was very proud that our senior citizens and people were very impressed with the way that it was handled and run.”

The general population shelters were managed by the Red Cross, while the special needs shelters were managed by the Florida Department of Health.

As of early Sept. 19 there were approximately 650 people remaining in the general population shelter and 11 in the special needs shelter. The two general population shelters that were still open as of Tuesday were Estero Recreation Center and the North Fort Myers Rec Center.

The school district chose to close school for another week, Sept. 18, through Sept. 22, Fischer said because some of the schools were still being used as shelters, others had damage and at the beginning of the week 16 still had no power. In addition, some people were still affected by flooding and had no access to their cars, or homes.

“The last shelter will be closing today at 3,” she said, Wednesday morning.

The Lee County School District transportation department was reviewing their bus routes Wednesday to see what roads were assessable. Fischer said Lehigh Acres, Bonita Springs and Buckingham still have some flooding.

“We want to make sure children are safe to walk to the bus stop and get to the school,” she said.

The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools created a Hurricane Irma School Relief Fund to help teachers restore their classrooms, so their focus can remain on student learning. Cash donations are being sought to purchase and replenish much needed supplies benefiting students, teachers and classrooms. One hundred percent of the funds will go towards the relief efforts.

“I am very thankful that the community came together in the face of a disaster,” Fischer said, adding that she thinks a lot of people’s perspectives changed on what we take for granted. “Hopefully this will serve to strengthen our community and increase our partnership.”