(TNS) — Hurricane Irma knocked the power out at Palmetto Ridge High School in Naples, Fla., at 12:50 p.m., Sept. 9. Palmetto Principal Jon Bremseth remembers the exact time because the school’s clocks were frozen in that position for the next week until power was restored.
But in that moment, at 12:50 p.m., Bremseth had bigger concerns than telling time.
The generator that was supposed to power the air conditioning wouldn’t switch on.
“I thought, ‘It’s about to get warm,’ ” Bremseth said.
For 12 days, the school in Golden Gate Estates was converted into a special-needs shelter, housing more than 550 people with various disabilities and their caregivers, as well as another roughly 300 staff, National Guardsmen and other emergency workers.
Bremseth and other Collier County school district staff worked alongside the Collier County Emergency Operations Center to manage the shelter. They brought in large fans and carved holes in ceiling tiles to install air-conditioning units. When the exhaust from the units began recircling warm air, they brought in larger units and hooked them up so the exhaust was released outside.
Two days later, they replaced the generator, and the central air conditioning was restored.
“Fortunately, we had really good people in place who knew something about this or knew something about that,” he said. “We just put our heads together and said, ‘How do we solve this?’”
When the toilets stopped flushing, staff brought in 55 garbage bins filled with water and used buckets to manually flush them.
When they ran out of cots for people to sleep on, Bremseth and his team laid out gymnastics mats to cover the tiled cafeteria floor.
The school was barely recognizable.
Grandmas and grandpas buzzed around the gym in electric wheelchairs, dodging cots and basketball hoops.
What was once the band director’s office was now a nursing station. What had served as the discipline and attendance office transformed into Command Central.
And the band room?
It housed dozens of people on oxygen.
Respirators were hooked up to a separate generator that was checked regularly by electricians and Emergency Operations Center workers who brought fuel. If that generator failed, Bremseth said, workers were prepared to power up the backup generator.
“It was quite the operation,” he said.
Then there was the task of entertaining guests.
Classrooms were converted into movie and game rooms and staff distributed photocopied newspaper crossword puzzles.
On Thursday, school faculty, emergency workers and even prisoners were seen clearing equipment out of the school and cleaning up.
“We’ll be ready for (the kids) on Monday morning,” Bremseth said.
Bremseth said he was looking forward to returning to a normal routine and not sleeping on his office floor.
“I always said I thought being a high school principal is a really difficult job — and it is — but being a shelter operator is a whole different level of difficulty.”
©2017 the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.)
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