Miami Hurricane Shelter Still Packed - With People And Pets

Sep 17, 2017
Originally published on September 17, 2017 9:08 am

Miami's largest hurricane shelter, run by the Red Cross, still houses nearly 1,000 people. Some have been there since before the storm but many are recent arrivals—people who tried to ride out the storm but are now dealing with an ongoing lack of power and mold infesting their homes.

As of Saturday, 866 humans are staying in the Costco-sized warehouse- - Miami/Dade Fairgrounds shelter — packed with cots, overflowing bags of donated clothes and mountains of bottled water. The oldest is 105 years old. The youngest is 1 day old. Then there's the non-humans. We're talking pets. Eighteen dogs. Six birds. A monkey. And two cats who evacuated from the Keys.

"Yeah, these are my boys. This is Angel and that's Rimsky," their owner says fondly. She's Athena –no last name—who was working as a life coach in Ramrod Key before the storm. Athena's set up something like a fortress around her cot using the cat cage and folding chairs draped with pink towels for privacy. And now, because she uses a cane, Athena's chatting with a disability activist who's been going around checking in on people with special needs.

Running out of toilet paper

"Toilet paper has been a huge thing," she says. "The day after the hurricane, we ran out of toilet paper and had none for 24 hours and it's been spotty and they've been trying but it's just little things."

Toilet paper is a low tech little problem. Lack of wifi is a high tech one. Not having it makes filling out FEMA paperwork a total headache. The activist, Ernie Martinez, heads over to shelter manager Louise Vandewiele to amplify these concerns. She's more than willing to listen. She and Martinez have been in constant contact. Making sure there are nice, wide aisles for people in wheelchairs. Getting help for a blind person counting steps. Segregating people with allergies from the pet-friendly part of the shelter. Dealing with a deaf veteran with signs of PTSD. Vandewiele says she absolutely understands the toilet paper issue.

"You know, with 1,000 people, which is what we'll have by the end of the day, we use up a lot of it," she says wryly, noting that the shelter tries to make sure everyone can hang onto their own individual roll.

Vandewiele came from Tennessee to run this shelter for two weeks. She's a 57- year-old Red Cross veteran who started volunteering in her 20s during ice storms in her native Canada. She's a mother of 10 children, many of them adopted foster kids, with her husband, an emergency room physician. Vandewiele's shelter in Miami is consolidating as others shut down. But it's also taking in new people who've spent the past week in motels or hotels — but now they're out of money and they can't go to their uninhabitable homes. Or there are people like 24-year-old Tyler Gist.

"I've been here since Monday," he says. "I came from a different shelter --Miami Central, they moved us all here."

Robbed and tired but helping out

Before Irma, Gist was living in a rescue mission. He'd just moved to Miami, and was robbed on his way here, he says, of $1800 in cash. Lanky and bearded, sporting a white T-shirt and a spider-web elbow tattoo, Gist spent the past week helping out at the shelter. He passed out water, assisted old people, built cots, but then he got bored.

"Eight in the morning yesterday, I started –I was walking up and down the road even though it was exhausting hot," he says. "And I found a job within four hours."

A job delivering sandwiches at the Jimmy Johns chain, but the guy who offered it said he needed a bike.

"And well, I kind of lied to him and told him I had a bike," Gist said. But he went back to the shelter, determined to make this work. "Sometimes you got to bite your tongue and do things that you don't feel like is necessary," he said. "I don't like asking for stuff." Gist was near tears.

But that's exactly what he did. Later that afternoon, when a family dropped off clothes and toys at the shelter, Gist approached them with a question.

"If you know anyone who has a bike that they could donate it, it would be highly appreciated. I really need one for my job," he said quietly.

Two hours later, the dad came back with a bike. To be clear, Gist has a bike now, but no lock and no helmet. He's not sure how he'll piece together what he has left after Irma. But like so many people at this shelter, he says having anything after the hurricane feels like a blessing.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Miami's largest hurricane shelter still houses close to a thousand people. Many are new arrivals. They rode out the storm, but they're now dealing with no power and mold-infested homes. Others have been there for the past nine days.

NPR's Neda Ulaby visited the shelter. It's in a Costco-sized building at the Miami-Dade fairgrounds and talked to people living there and running it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There you go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good morning.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Bagels and fresh plums and plain yogurt. Volunteers from as far away as Minnesota handed out breakfast yesterday to the 866 people staying at this warehouse of a building cramped with cots, mountains of bottled water and a huge range of humans. The oldest is 105 years old - the very youngest seven days. And the pets - 18 dogs, six birds, a monkey and the two fluffy cats who evacuated from the Keys with their owner.

ATHENA: Yeah, these are my boys. This is Angel, and that's Rimsky.

ULABY: That's Athena. No last name. She was working as a life coach in Ramrod Key before the storm. Athena set up a little fortress around her cot using the cat cage and folding chairs draped with pink towels for privacy. Right now Athena, who uses a cane, is chatting with a disability activist who's been going around checking in on people with special needs.

ATHENA: Toilet paper's been a huge thing. The day after the hurricane, we ran out of toilet paper. We had none for 24 hours, and then it's been spotty. And they've been trying to do it, but it's just little things.

ULABY: Toilet paper. No Wi-Fi. That makes it tricky to fill out FEMA paperwork. So the activist, Ernie Martinez, heads to the shelter manager to amplify these concerns.

ERNIE MARTINEZ: Can I talk to you a little bit?

ULABY: The shelter manager, Louise Vandewiele, is willing. She and Martinez have been in constant contact over things like making sure people in wheelchairs have wide spaces between cots and getting help for a blind person counting steps. Vandewiele says the toilet paper issue she gets.

LOUISE VANDEWIELE: You know, with a thousand people, which is what you will have by the end of the day, we use up a lot of it.

ULABY: Vandewiele has run the shelter for two weeks. She's a 30-year Red Cross veteran, a mother of 10 - mostly adopted foster kids - and she's originally from Montreal, Canada. Her shelter is consolidating as others shut down, but it's also taking in people who've spent the past week in motels. But now they're out of money, and they can't go home. Or people like Tyler Gist. He's 24. He was living in a homeless shelter before Irma.

TYLER GIST: I've been here since Monday. I came from a different shelter, Miami Central. They moved us all here.

ULABY: Gist is lanky and bearded with a white T-shirt and a spiderweb elbow tattoo. He spent the past week helping by passing out water, building cots. But then he got bored.

GIST: Eight in the morning yesterday, I started - I was walking down - up and down the road even though it was exhausting and hot. And I found a job within four hours.

ULABY: A job delivering sandwiches. But the guy who offered it said it came with a catch.

GIST: He said, you just have to have a bike. Well, I kind of lied to him and told him I had a bike.

ULABY: So Gist went back to the shelter, determined to make this work.

GIST: Sometimes you got to bite your tongue and do things that you don't feel like is necessary. I don't like asking for stuff.

ULABY: But that's exactly what he did. Later that afternoon, when a family came by the shelter dropping off clothes and toys, Gist asked them a question.

GIST: If you know anybody that, you know, has a bike that they could donate, it would be highly appreciated. I really need one for my job.

ULABY: Two hours later, the dad came back with a bike. Gist has no lock or helmet. But like so many people at this shelter after Irma, he says what he has is a blessing.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF E*VAX'S "THE PROCESS OF LEAVING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.