WELLINGTON, Fla. (Reuters) - As Hurricane Matthew bore down on Florida’s Atlantic coast, Richard Hatfield, who is homeless and makes ends meet by panhandling and doing odd jobs, was desperate to get inside to safety.
He contacted emergency officials in Palm Beach County, who sent a bus to pick him up in the increasingly high winds accompanying the hurricane’s approach, bringing the 58-year-old to safety as part of the difficult outreach to a homeless population that is acutely vulnerable to such killer storms.
“All my stuff was blowing away in the wind and I was concerned about the storm because I had no place to go. Nowhere,” Hatfield said on Friday at a hurricane shelter in Wellington.
By Friday, the hurricane had killed more than 800 people and left tens of thousands homeless in Haiti before lashing Florida, killing at least one person there before rolling northward, triggering mass evacuations along the coast. By evening it was making its way through Georgia and toward South Carolina and North Carolina.
The storm, the fiercest cyclone to affect the United States since Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast four years ago, posed a particular challenge to emergency officials seeking to protect vulnerable residents - the disabled or those living outdoors in homeless encampments, on the streets or along the Atlantic’s many low-lying beaches.
Cities up and down the coast engaged extra buses and vans to pick people up, some stopping at homeless shelters and others driving to places where people like Hatfield were sheltering as best they could.
In St. Augustine, Florida, a city of 14,000 with 28 homeless encampments, Mayor Nancy Shaver said officials were encouraging people to head to shelters, but not all responded.
Shaver said she saw one man who stood outside, protected only by a plastic bag.
“All that was standing between him and Hurricane Matthew was that plastic,” Shaver said.
In Jacksonville, the largest city facing an immediate threat from Matthew on Friday, Salvation Army area commander Rob Vincent said shelter beds were available, but that some people were hesitant to come in because of rules banning alcohol and drugs, among other things.
Vincent said, however, that by Friday afternoon as the storm was intensifying, few people were still outside, which he took as a sign that most had found shelter.
In South Carolina, officials in Horry County put on extra buses to help those without a means to evacuate get to shelter, including the elderly, disabled people and the homeless.
A regular stop on the bus rounds was a homeless shelter run by the non-profit New Directions in Myrtle Beach. Kathy Jenkins, the organization’s executive director, said that the group’s three shelters were prepared to take in considerably more than the 200 people who typically stay in its facilities and participate in its programs.
“All week the relief teams have been going out to places where they know homeless people have been camping, and letting them know we have places for people who want to get out of the weather,” Jenkins said.
The organization is also getting the word out through the area’s community kitchen, whose director has been telling patrons that shelter and transportation is available.
Anyone seeking a roof would be allowed in, Jenkins said, even those who appeared intoxicated.
As the storm moved from Florida into Georgia on Friday, approaching the South Carolina coast where Myrtle Beach is located, Jenkins said she did a last walk-through of her organization’s shelters, making sure there were enough beds and food, and that her staff was prepared for unexpected emergencies.
“This has been a very, very tough week for our staff and for me,” Jenkins said. “The magnitude of what we are going to do as we move through this storm - and how we are going to take care of the people who have come to us for help - it’s huge.”
Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Laila Kearney in New York; Writing by Sharon Bernstein and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Sandra Maler