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Bay Center Opens Doors for Irma Evacuees

Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

Along with hosting concerts, home improvement shows, sports, and other events over its 32-year span, the Pensacola Bay Center is once again a shelter for those having fled Hurricane Irma in south Florida.

As of Monday morning, there were 286 people housed at the center’s shelter on the ground floor. Gloria Wiggins with the American Red Cross who is shelter manager, says that number is fluctuating.

“As people leave, they’re trying to go home,” said Wiggins. “Some of them are told to come back, because the weather is not safe for them to be traveling. So, we’re here.”

The Bay Center has a capacity of 1,999 if needed. As with any Red Cross operation, there are cots, meals and a chance for evacuees to contact their families to let them know they’re safe.

“We get everything together, and we knew there was going to be a number of people traveling in this area for safety,” Wiggins said. “The volunteers with the American Red Cross is a great turnout, as well as the citizens of Pensacola. The Pensacola Bay Center has been a godsend.”

Volunteers, including some students from the University of West Florida, Pensacola State College and elsewhere, set up the shelter in about two hours, according to Wiggins.

On Monday morning, people continued to stream into the Bay Center, luggage and bags in hand. Kathryn Jokob and her family were unpacking two vehicles in the Bay Center parking lot. She says evacuating was pretty much their only option.

“We come here with the family, because we didn’t have [a] safe home,” Jokob said. “We didn’t have anything to put around the home, so for that reason we came here.”

Keith Winchester and his two sons left Sebring on Saturday night, before the rain bands and high winds arrived. And they didn’t “just happen” upon Pensacola.

“I figured I could continue to move west,” Winchester said. “Since the storm was undermined moving east and the powerful side of that storm was on that side I decided we’d just keep going west if we needed to.”

Winchester’s also keeping his wife – who’s visiting relatives in China – up to date via Skype.

Credit northescambia.com
Gov. Rick Scott speaks with evacuees staying at the Pensacola Bay Center on Sunday.

“I’m praying that everybody evacuated; we’re getting prayers from all over the world,” said Gov. Rick Scott Sunday, while visiting the Escambia County Emergency Operations Center.

“I want to thank everybody in Pensacola and Escambia County for supporting people who come here to get out of harm’s way,” Scott told the Pensacola News Journal.

Scott also reminded everyone that even after Irma goes away, much work remains and much help is needed.

“People want to donate, you can text ‘DISASTER’ at 20222, and donate $10,” said Scott. “And we’re still going to need more volunteers in our shelters. People are going to be in the shelters for a while. We’re going to need help with food distribution, water distribution, [and] cleanup.

Those wishing to volunteer can visit www.volunteer.org for more information or to sign up.

The number of evacuees at the Bay Center includes about ten people with special needs; 68 pets are also being kept there. And about 90 horses evacuated from south Florida are being housed at the Escambia County Equestrian Center.