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Running Out Of Cots, North Carolina Shelters Strained As Florence Hits

Evacuees sit outside the temporary shelter at Trask Middle School before Hurricane Florence arrives in Wilmington, N.C., on Thursday.

Updated at 1:50 p.m. ET

In the days leading up to the arrival of Hurricane Florence, North Carolina's governor offered a series of dire warnings.

"Even if you've ridden out storms before, this one is different," Gov. Roy Cooper said.

As Hurricane Florence made landfall, it appeared many North Carolinians had listened.

As of Friday morning, the state was housing almost 20,000 people in 157 shelters, Gov. Cooper told Steve Inskeep of NPR's Morning Edition. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016 — North Carolina's last major hurricane — the state counted 4,071 people in 109 shelters.

"If the rain had been — they said 20 inches like with Floyd [in 1999] — I'd be at the house now. I wouldn't have left," Scott Baker told NPR outside the shelter at Trask Middle School in Wilmington, N.C. Baker lives in Wilmington, which was expected to receive the strongest wind and rain. "But they're saying, what, 24, 25 [inches]," Baker said. "I said, no I got to go."

Baker picked that shelter — one of the five shelters operated by New Hanover County, which so far have housed a total of more than 500 people — partly because it let him bring his cat. And in the hours before the storm hit, Baker was already thinking about when he'd get back home.

"If the rain stops Monday, I'm at least going to run over there and check it out," Baker said. "If the house is dry I'm going right back in it, get the generator going, wait till things get up and going again."

But, unlike Baker, some of the people who evacuated to a shelter hadn't chosen to come. Jennifer Olson had been in a Wilmington hospital, about an hour away from her home in Little River, S.C.

"They cleared out 75 percent of the patients," she said. "So I had to find a place to go."

Olson said her home was likely to flood. When she was discharged from the hospital, the roads in South Carolina had already been closed, she said. "I was definitely stranded," she said.

Florence is Olson's first hurricane. She described herself as a Midwesterner more accustomed to tornadoes. "I'm scared to death of flooding," she said, "and actually just losing my life." Olson said the shelter was "nice," though she also said there was not enough food. She had a cot to sleep on — although evacuees had been asked to bring their own bedding, and Olson forgot a pillow.

"I will suggest to you that the spirits of our evacuees are relatively high," said New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet. "They understand the difficulty of being in a shelter operation and they've been very accommodating for that."

Coudriet told reporters Thursday that his shelters, which partnered with the Red Cross, had run out of cots. "We are doing as well as we can," Coudriet said. "There are a deficit of cots not only in New Hanover County but I would suggest throughout eastern North Carolina."

Wake County, which includes the state capital Raleigh, opened three new shelters Thursday that it said could hold as many as 1,100 people. It had already opened three shelters that filled up with coastal evacuees. In addition to the 20,000 evacuees in North Carolina shelters, South Carolina housed 5,500 people in 59 shelters as of Thursday night, a state Red Cross spokesperson said.

About 400 people were housed in Virginia shelters, according to member station WUNC.

Rebecca Hersher contributed to this report.

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