WEST MELBOURNE, Fla., Sept. 5 -- Living in the tight, tense atmosphere of a hurricane shelter, says Kerri Nash, "brings out the best and worst in people."
As principal of Meadowlane Elementary School here, Nash, 44, is also a designated storm shelter manager. She -- along with a cadre of volunteers -- has retooled her school into a full-service harbor for the duration of the large and long-lasting Hurricane Frances.
The shelter opened Friday morning and filled up in just a few hours. By Sunday the nearly 700 people who have taken refuge here have come to know each other rather well, Nash says. The cafeteria is full; so are most of the classrooms. Folks of all ages and colors coexist behind drawn hurricane shutters and doors locked against the wind.
"When some of my loved ones ask me why I do this," says Nash, who has overseen three previous hurricane shelters, "I say, 'Who's going to do it if I don't?' It's very fulfilling."
Most of the people who've sought sanctuary at the school are from the Brevard County area, Nash says. Or maybe they are motorists who were stranded on Interstate 95 without gasoline or were evicted from unsafe motels. Or they just had no place else to go.
"Some people came here with nothing. No food, no blankets, nothing," Nash says. Good Samaritans have chipped in to help -- offering to share life's necessities.
As head of the shelter, she works with a Red Cross representative, two West Melbourne police officers and more than a dozen volunteers. She makes announcements -- about the weather, a county order to boil all water, and periodic -- and separate -- fresh-air breaks for smokers and non-smokers. She makes decisions -- such as when to let a mother take her crying child into a private room and where to show a video, "Malibu's Most Wanted," to adults. And she makes the occasional peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
When the electricity went out in the wee hours of Sunday morning, Nash made sure that Ron Murphy, 47, the Red Cross volunteer, was able to get the school's backup generator started. The automatic switch didn't work, so Murphy, a burly, mustachioed guy, fought the fierce night winds to fire it up manually.
"I've been doing this for 25 years," he says at one point. "Why quit now?" The Red Cross has opened at least 15 similar shelters in Brevard County for Frances, he says.
Nash, dressed comfortably in a dark-blue short-sleeved Florida Gators shirt, blue jeans and Nike running shoes, carries a walkie-talkie as she dashes through gusting winds and rain from her office to the cafeteria to check on everyone.
The cafeteria -- accommodating 180 people -- looks like a scene from a Charles Dickens novel. Air mattresses and sleeping bags are strewn everywhere. Lots of people sit at the cafeteria tables -- some reading, others talking, still others just staring at the walls.
Three people play rummy atop a cardboard box. A man naps on a cot. Another reads "What Little Girls Are Made Of." One woman is in a wheelchair, another walks with a cane.
Contrary to the outside where wicked winds batter the trees, inside the air is stuffy and still. Four ceiling fans whir pitifully overhead.
Children dance about the room. Some watch a cartoon movie on video. A couple of kids are playing with balloons. One girl works vigorously with crayons and paper to bring color to a drab situation. One towheaded boy has shoes that convert to skates with a flip of the wheels. He glides among the tables.
So far Nash has had to deal with a man with a diabetic seizure and a pregnant woman who is six days overdue. She made sure that both were put in touch with the three registered nurses who also happen to be staying here.
Jules Aronowitzi, 73, wanders by with two pieces of bread. He lives in a mobile home in nearby Palm Bay. "I don't even know if it's there," he says.
In a classroom in another building, Mary Morton, 28, and Angie Barker, 34, both teachers in other schools, watch over their five children -- all under the age of 5. "Yes!" "No!" "Yes!" "No!"
Barker is in the middle of toilet-training her 2-year-old twins. She hangs dirty diapers in a blue plastic bag on the outside door handle. "That's our 'Do not disturb' sign," says Barker's mother, Jana Endres, 60, who is also staying here.
Many teachers have volunteered to help. So have Nash's husband, Gary, and 15-year-old son, Jared. They serve meals to the residents three times a day.
Nash is concerned that she is running out of supplies. She has enough to last until midday Monday, but is low on drinking water and bread. She is completely out of milk. At one point, Nash takes a break. She pulls the brown clip from her blond hair, brushes it several times, puts the clip back and goes back to work. On three hours of sleep, she still has the energy of the committed.
As the storm eases in the early afternoon and the sun almost breaks through the clouds, news of damaged homes and fallen trees begins to filter into the shelter. Residents become restless.
Many want to see for themselves how their world has changed. They begin to leave, despite the warnings of Nash and other officials. On battery-powered radios, police spokesmen tell citizens to stay off the roads. There are tornado warnings.
"There's not much we can do if they want to go," Nash tells Ron Murphy. "Just stand at the front gate and take down their names and next of kin."
Nash is ready to go home herself. She'd like a Labor Day break before school begins again. If it begins again. Newscasters are already talking breathlessly of the next great storm -- Hurricane Ivan.
Nash takes a deep breath and smiles. She'll stay as long as she has to. "We're just doing the best we can. We haven't been given the all-clear," she says.