Despite the heavy wind and rain outside the Lealman Exchange Wednesday, the scene inside the massive building’s concrete walls was decidedly serene.
The 77,000 square-foot facility built to provide programming and services to unincorporated Lealman’s underserved community recently transformed into a shelter for those riding out Hurricane Ian. Despite the strong Category 4 storm expected to make landfall between Fort Myers and Sarasota County later Wednesday, its outer bands were already dumping rain and bringing wind gusts over 60 mph to St. Petersburg – just a few miles south of Lealman – as of noon.
Inside the Exchange, 172 Pinellas County residents took shelter from the storm. Several county and community organizations provided hot meals and comfort, while residents supplied the camaraderie.
“We’ve really seen folks bond here, helping one another out,” said Chris Moore, assistant to the county administrator and government liaison for the community. “We’re trying to keep things positive here. We had a movie night for the kids last night – which I thought was great.”
In addition to a showing of Minions breaking the steady influx of weather broadcasts, Moore relayed that the Salvation Army provided hot meals Tuesday night. Enough food remained from the community dinner that volunteers made breakfast burritos Wednesday morning – and have yet to dip into several pallets worth of military Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs).
In addition to Moore representing the county government, the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office and local fire district embedded staff onsite. Moore said they all work in close coordination with the emergency operations center.
Endeavors, a local nonprofit, sent volunteers to assist with operations. Moore said they even provided a behavioral health specialist.
He also credited the St. Petersburg Foundation (SPF) – the philanthropic arm of the St. Petersburg Group, which owns the St. Pete Catalyst – for its help. In March, commissioners approved SPF assuming daily operation of the county-owned hub to help it reach its full potential.
“It’s a whole community effort,” said Moore in earnest.
SHINE Mural Festival artist Leo Gomez, he noted, adorned the building’s large generator with an appropriate message. It reads “Better Together.”
“You know, that’s really our mantra here at this facility,” added Moore. “And that’s proven true over the last couple of days.”
While the Exchange has enough fuel to power the building for at least a few days, Jim Millican, division chief and fire marshal for Lealman, said county reserves were ready to keep the generator humming if needed.
While not a designated special needs shelter, Millican explained that many people with health concerns still seek refuge at the facility. In addition, people could develop unexpected issues during their stay, and the county pulls its first responders off roads once sustained winds reach 45 mph.
“So, when we get to the point that there’s no trucks on the road, that’s where these guys really come into play,” said Millican. “Because now you have paramedics in the building to take care of any medical issues.”
Age demographics at the facility, said Moore, were evenly distributed. A young mother walked by with a 19-day-old baby, and the 24 cots onsite were reserved for the elderly. He relayed that the county urges residents to bring sleeping bags and materials to shelters.
So far, Millican said officials at the Exchange have overseen a smooth process with no serious challenges. The county, first responders and volunteers plan and train for these events, and he noted, “it’s not their first time, either.”
As one of several county representatives onsite, Moore said, “it feels tremendous” and “humbling” to help people in need. “I mean, that’s what we’re here to do as public servants,” he added.
Moore once again reiterated his thanks for a host of community partners coming together to support the mission. According to an 11:30 a.m. county release, about 4,500 Pinellas residents were riding out the storm in shelters, and the number is expected to increase. Many of those are in Pinellas County Schools (PCS).
“They really step up in this process a lot,” said Moore of PCS. “A lot of the teachers, the principals – they step up and welcome folks in, just like we’re doing here.”
Community members are also appreciative.
During the interview, an older lady who wished to be referred to as Mrs. Raymond walked up and expressed her sincere gratitude to everyone that helped give her a safe place to stay.
Raymond relayed that she has lived in Lealman for 30 years, just down the road from the Exchange. She was unsure if her old roof could withstand Ian’s winds and used words like “awesome” and “wonderful” to describe the facility and its operators.
“We have a nice room – my gosh, they were serving food for heaven’s sake,” said Raymond. “I wasn’t even expecting that.
“And so, I will say, my hat is off to Pinellas County and the Lealman Exchange.”