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Philadelphia residents trudge to shelters in Hurricane Sandy rains

October 29, 2012|By David Zucchino
  • American Red Cross workers set up cots inside the West Philadelphia High School in Philadelphia.
American Red Cross workers set up cots inside the West Philadelphia High… (Charles Fox, Philadelphia…)

PHILADELPHIA--With her apartment key dangling on a lanyard around her neck and a small tote bag under her arm, Venus Jones Johnson trudged through a driving rain. She was seeking shelter from the storm Monday morning, walking through rain-swollen streets to a Red Cross emergency center at West Philadelphia High School.

Johnson, 45, lives alone in a rented room. Frightened by TV reports of a monster storm called Sandy, she didn’t want to risk riding out the impending disaster at home, by herself.

So Johnson, her heavy winter coat slick with rain, joined dozens of other people inside the school gym. She was provided a cot, food and water. She was safe from the drumbeat of rain against the windows and the whistling winds that ripped leaves from the trees outside. 

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"I kept hearing about this big disaster headed our way, so I figured I should find a better place,’’ Johnson said as a steady stream of other rain-drenched residents arrived in the shelter, hauling their possessions in small valises or black garbage bags.

The West Philadelphia center is one of three set up by the city and the Red Cross.  By noon, emergency officials reported that 232 people, including 50 children, were in three city shelters. More were expected by nightfall, when forecasters said winds could reach 60 mph or higher and rainfall could total five to 10 inches by the end of the day Tuesday.

Emergency officials at the school declined to provide figures for arrivals and capacity at the city’s three shelters.

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Among those at the high school was Darryl Bradley, 44, who walked through a light rain late Sunday afternoon, arriving a half hour before the shelter opened. Bradley said he had just been evicted from his apartment in West Philadelphia, and heard about the shelter on the TV news.

Even if he hadn’t been evicted, he said, he would not have tried to stay home for the storm.  During Hurricane Irene last summer, part of his ceiling collapsed during a downpour.

"They say this one is going to be much bigger and much worse, and last a lot longer,’’ Bradley said. "I barely survived Irene, so I’m not trying that again.’’

Inside the shelter, residents sat on cots, unloading their meager possessions. Workers at the reception desk fielded a litany of complaints and questions.

A young woman wanted more blankets. A middle-aged woman said there was no hot water for coffee. A man couldn’t find the showers. Two people wanted to know when lunch would be served.

Johnson had no complaints. She was warm, safe and dry. And a vagabond’s life was nothing new to her. She has lived in 20 apartments over the past two years, she said. She’s writing a book about it: "The True Story of Venus Jones.’’

"I’ll be just fine,’’ she said. "I’m here at least two days, till the storm passes, and then I’ll find someplace else. My story continues.’’

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