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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2017
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Clearwater middle school principal turns from students to evacuees with special needs

CLEARWATER — Barry Brown was waiting in line for sandbags to secure his St. Petersburg home Thursday when he got the call.

Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater, where he is principal, needed to convert into an emergency shelter for special needs people and pets. Now.

He and about 20 staff members were there by 7 p.m., breaking down the computer labs to make way for cots, prepping the cafeteria to serve three meals a day through the weekend, and posting signs.

He returned at 4:30 a.m. Friday, making sure the 1,000-person capacity school was ready.

The doors opened for hospice and high medical needs patients about 6 a.m.

By 3 p.m. Brown's stride tracker clocked him at nearly 18,000 steps — a good 8,000 more than usual by this time.

Families with animals were spread out in the gymnasium's tarp-covered floor. Couples in wheelchairs crowded in the hallways to chat and pass the time.

Classrooms with extra outlets for ventilators and breathing machines were filling up.

A man waved Brown down in the hallway and asked where he could get a cup of coffee, cupping his ear to hear his answer.

In a few hours, Brown would go home to St. Petersburg to pick up his daughter, son-in-law, grandson, his ex-wife, and shih tzu.

They would all drive right back to the school, where Brown was going to set up sleeping bags and pillows on his office floor.

He wasn't sure how long they'd be there. Hurricane Irma's path was still uncertain Friday.

But he said it wasn't just him — there were nearly 100 school system and county staff members working to keep the public safe.

"We put our jobs and the people and kids we care for first," Brown said. "We do these things every day. It's a cumulative effort."

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