TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Four-year-old Evan Jackson will be turning 5 on Thursday.
But instead of preparing for a birthday party, his mother, Latoria McKelvey, is bracing herself and her son for Hurricane Irma to rage through Florida.
Little Evan has cerebral palsy. He’s only able to eat through feeding tubes. And because of low-functioning lungs, he needs breathing treatments several times a day, his mother says.
When she heard about the Department of Health’s special needs shelter stationed at Florida High School, she was relieved. She was one of the first to settle there, bright and early when it opened Saturday morning.
“(I was) slightly panicked because I didn’t know where I was going to go or what I was going to do,” she said, calmly rocking Evan under his favorite Mickey Mouse blanket, in one of the several beds on the floor of the school’s pristine gymnasium.
Like many during Hurricane Hermine last year, McKelvey lost power in her Blountstown home for five days.
“I didn’t want to take that chance,” she said about Hurricane Irma. “Especially with him being totally dependent on the feeding pump.”
The shelter has generators and offers bedding and staffed nurses for people who need extra care like Evan, or those who are oxygen-dependent or wheelchair-bound.
Like McKelvey, this isn’t Zonia Thompson’s first hurricane either.
This is her third time being displaced.
Twelve years ago, Thompson and her then-3-month-old daughter Samyra Bickham fled Louisiana because of Hurricane Katrina. They lost everything then.
Most recently, Hurricane Harvey flooded her newly rented home in Houston. She had just moved there two months ago for a new welding job.
But that new life was quickly overturned when Harvey ravaged through Houston and destroyed hundreds of homes, including hers.
Thompson and Samyra, now 12, came to Miami to escape Harvey, seeking refuge with her older daughter and her family.
But Irma forced them to pick up and leave — again.
“It’s been an ongoing struggle,” said Thompson. “It’s like I’m literally running from storms.”
Thompson and her family are Louisiana-bound but stopped for a break and some food at a Shell gas station in Tallahassee. Her two restless, toddler-aged grandchildren laughed and ran around an empty parking spot with her son-in-law, stretching their legs after a 12-hour drive.
“I just keep losing houses and everything I’ve worked for,” Thompson said, blankly staring into the distance through sunglasses.
The gas station’s slow-moving line stretched to nearly 20 cars, drivers desperate to top off tanks before the storm blows through the capital. Saturday afternoon, it was one of the only gas stations in sight with a digital sign that was not blank.
About 6 miles north, hundreds hunkered down at Chiles High School, which the Red Cross has turned into a shelter.
Inside, volunteers stood at the entrance handing out neatly folded donated clothes. In the gymnasium, dozens of air mattresses and blankets were spread out. Dozens filed in, some stopping for an extra shirt at the donation table, others carrying large bulk boxes of Cheetos and Chips Ahoy.
Michelle Saavedra’s family and three other families made the trek together from Miami on bumper-to-bumper highways.
She was happy to finally be somewhere safe; on the way to Tallahassee, she and her family slept in their car at a highway rest stop.
“I don’t believe we could have been in a better place,” Saavedra, 19, said.
She and her mother, Gloria Llerena, 41, have only lived in Miami for two years. They recently immigrated from Peru.
Irma is their first hurricane experience, so Llerena didn't know what to expect. The family moved everything up from the ground floor of their three-story townhouse in anticipation of flooding.
Arriving at the brick-walled shelter was a relief for Llerena.
“I feel safer now,” she said, sighing with relief.
Debbie Mann, a local Red Cross volunteer, was helping manage the shelter. She said Saturday it was at maximum capacity, with more than 500 people checked in.
“It’s a safe haven. It’s some place for the families to be together and weather out this storm together," said Mann. “That’s the most important thing — is family. Everything else is replaceable.”