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Patience in short supply as desperation sets in among South Florida residents still in Hurricane Irma's path

Patience in short supply as desperation sets in among South Florida residents still in Hurricane Irma's path
In downtown Miami, people wait to get on a bus headed to Orlando under a mandatory evacuation plan. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Tiffany Ceballos and her family arrived at the iron gate in front of Miami Coral Park Senior High School on Friday seeking refuge in the sturdy suburban edifice from the anticipated furies of Hurricane Irma.

But instead of being shown to a cot and a food line, they were shown the door by a National Guard soldier in camo fatigues.

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The fact that Ceballos' sister had spent three hours waiting in line on behalf of the family of six, all of them fleeing Little Havana, meant nothing, they were told. Only those who were there since first thing in the morning were getting in.

"We didn't find out about the evacuation order until this morning," Ceballos protested. "We needed to pack up. We didn't expect it to fill so quick…"

Tell it to the hand.

As she waited for instructions on where else her family could go, Ceballos looked exasperated — and in that, she was not alone.

With hundreds of thousands of people streaming out of their homes for safety, tensions were flaring in the final, unsettling hours before Irma crashes into the city.

Life's necessities are getting increasingly harder to come by, and in some cases, they are unavailable. Displaced Miamians are losing patience with shelters that have surged over capacity, fights are breaking out at parched gas stations, and the airport was a cauldron of frayed nerves in the hours before it was to close Friday evening.

"It is impossible to get out," said Davide Corradi, who had been booked on a weekend flight back home to Milan, Italy. "I tried to change my ticket. I couldn't." With so many hotels under evacuation, he and his wife were among thousands unable to find a room.

"So we stay here," he said, pointing to a row of chairs in the airport terminal where he expected to stay until his flight finally leaves early next week.

Many stranded passengers had grueling tales of being placed on interminable hold with ticket agents, quoted exorbitant prices, and spending hours trying to purchase seats on travel websites — only to learn later that the seats did not exist.

Whether one paid $100 or $1,000 to travel just a few states away appeared to be a matter of luck. Rowan Black and his friends, all from Germany, decided to chance it and showed up at the airport at 3 a.m., hoping to find a flight anywhere out of Miami.

When the Delta ticket office finally opened up three hours later, they scored seats to Atlanta for $116. "They told us those same tickets would have been $1,000 if we bought them a day earlier," said Black, as one of his exhausted friends snoozed in a nearby terminal chair.

Hundreds wait in line at Home Depot in Miami to purchase supplies. Police were on the scene to keep things orderly.
Hundreds wait in line at Home Depot in Miami to purchase supplies. Police were on the scene to keep things orderly. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

They probably benefited from a decision by several major airlines to cap ticket prices and temporarily suspend the algorithms they typically use that increase the prices of tickets purchased at the last minute to as high as fliers might pay. But there ultimately were just not enough tickets to go around.

Passengers stranded at the airport eventually were bused to shelters, but in many cases there wasn't enough room there either.

"I'm not sure where to go right now," said Angelica Camacho, 30, who rode her bike to the North Miami Beach High School shelter, only to be turned away. Its 1,000 beds were full by Friday afternoon. Dozens of people stood outside, confused about what shelter might take them. "I'm trying to find one still with room," she said. "It's scary."

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Miami-Dade County officials announced more shelter openings on Friday, bringing the number to 45.

Meanwhile, police arranged to escort gas tankers to help ease tensions among motorists waiting angrily at filling stations. The wait exceeded an hour at many stations — if they even had gas. Horn blaring, shouting and some shoving broke out throughout the city.

"It's tough because everyone is trying to leave now," said Tanzim Adwa, 30, who was staffing the 24-hour Marathon gas station in North Miami on Friday. Waiting motorists stretched around the block, some of them periodically leaning on their horns. "Some guys were yelling at each other this morning because one thought it was his turn," Adwa said.

Many gas stations closed altogether as the city emptied out, with normally bustling streets devoid of activity. The uneasiness that settled over Miami was particularly alarming to stranded tourists. "My family in France tried to find us tickets to get out, but it was too late," said Sophie Amsellam, who was at the North Miami shelter with her daughters, ages 10 and 15. "I just want a safe place for my kids."

Police also had to show up in lots of places where they are not usually needed, to keep the order as supplies dwindled and those hoping to get what was left on the shelves sharpened their elbows.

Ten officers responded to a Home Depot near downtown, just outside the evacuation zone.

About 500 people were waiting in line to get plywood. The line was buzzing with complaints about alleged price gouging at a different hardware store down the street, which was charging $45 a sheet.

By mid-morning Home Depot's supply of plywood was gone. Customers stayed in line anyway, hopeful another truck would soon arrive.

Among them was Beatrice Ayalla, 60, who had been there since 2 a.m. There were 50 people ahead of her.

"They were selling plywood, but then they finished," she said. "They say now the truck will arrive in an hour and a half or two hours."

Her family needed the plywood badly. "We don't have impact windows. We don't have storm shutters. Our house is exposed completely," said Ayalla's daughter, Marcia Perez, who was also in line. The family needs to stay put, Perez said, because she works in a hospital surgery unit nearby that needs all hands available. They also worried what would happen to their dog, a large Rottweiler-Lab mix, in a shelter.

"It's hard to find shelters where you can feel comfortable and safe with your pet," Perez said. "Especially since we have such a large dog. My parents did not want to abandon him."

Back at the airport, Prasoon Mohan and his wife, Rasmi Roy, both from Miami, breathed a sigh of relief when he finally secured their boarding passes. They were on the last flight out of town being offered by American Airlines.

"It's hard to get anywhere," Roy said.

Where were they willing to go? Just about anywhere they knew people. It took them days to secure a reservation, but they finally got tickets — to Milwaukee, the agent told them.

Fine. It wasn't Miami.

Twitter: @evanhalper

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