Updated October 11, 2018 at 9:35 a.m.: The storm shelter at Dixie County High School remained open through the night but closed this morning due to a lack of need.
Gray skies loomed over the new Dixie County High School as National Guardsmen, Red Cross volunteers and Dixie County Sheriff’s officers finished last minute preparations ahead of Hurricane Michael.
Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle around 1:30 p.m. as a strong Category 4 storm with sustained winds up to 155 mph. It caused catastrophic damage along the Florida Panhandle. Parts of Dixie County were under a mandatory evacuation order.
Even with the mandatory evacuation, few evacuees took shelter at Dixie County High School, the county’s general emergency shelter.
Only 18 people registered at the emergency shelter as of 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, according to Mandy Lemmermen, spokeswoman for Dixie County Emergency Services.
Lemmermen noted that many in the county are staying with family outside the hurricane cone, particularly in Horseshoe Beach and Suwannee. Still, she recommends playing it safe with the brand-new facilities at the high school.
“Enjoy the air conditioner, enjoy the food, enjoy the hospitality and wait it out there,” she said.
Those seeking shelter in the wake of the storm should bring toiletries, blankets and all required medication. Lemmermen also recommended bringing air mattresses because the shelter has a limited number of cots.
She said those remaining in their homes should heed all warnings from emergency services on social media and news outlets for updates on the storm.
Paul Bennett, the principal of Dixie County High School, said more evacuees could show up through the night.
Bennett has lived in Dixie County since 1986 and has seen his fair share of storms, including Hurricane Irma last year. He said the common theme after storms is “people helping people.”
The people of Dixie County are a tight knit community who are prepared to help in the aftermath of emergencies like Hurricane Michael, Bennett said.
“My family is at home right now, but they may come here if it gets any hairier,” he said.
Bennett will stay at the school. He and the assistant principal are helping officials operate school facilities such as the lights and air conditioning.
Jennifer Stoots, one of the first 10 people to register for shelter, prefers the more cautious approach during hurricanes.
Stoots lives in Oldtown, about 10 miles from the high school, and sought shelter with her husband. She left her cat with a neighbor, as the shelter doesn’t allow pets.
Last year, she was one of around 300 people to seek shelter at Ruth Rains Middle School during Irma.
While she was at Ruth Rains, the winds from Irma uprooted trees in her yard. Luckily, her house was spared any damage. For Hurricane Michael, she again didn’t want to risk staying and is hoping to get lucky twice.
She said the biggest difference between her two experiences in a shelter is that it is much quieter this time.
Stoots urges anybody thinking about evacuating to leave behind their comforts and just do it.
“Things can be replaced, people can’t.”
Florida Division of Emergency management reports there are 35 shelters open throughout the state with about 5800 people seeking shelters.