LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – As storm surge threatens homes on the Gulf Coast and along Tampa Bay, people are seeking refuge further east in Polk County.

“It is what it is. I’d rather be alive and I hope my house is there when I get back. I hope my house isn’t flooded,” said Gini Roberts, who lives in an evacuation zone in South Tampa.

She came to the Hilton Garden Inn in Lakeland Tuesday afternoon with some necessities and her little dog, Harry. Roberts has sought shelter at this same hotel in hurricanes before.

“We left and we’ll be alive and they’re just things. I have a lot of family heirlooms in my house, a lot of ancestry information,” she said.

Eastbound traffic on I-4 out of the Tampa area was congested Monday night into Tuesday as people fled the serious storm surge threat from Hurricane Ian.

“Part of our shelter strategy is to anticipate evacuees from the Tampa Bay region,” Polk County Emergency Management Director Paul Womble said.

The county opened 19 emergency shelters at schools on Tuesday, including pet-friendly and special needs shelters for people from other counties or within Polk.

Polk County does not have evacuation zones because there is no threat of storm surge.

However, people are advised to evacuate if they live in low-lying flood-prone areas or are vulnerable to hurricane-force winds.

“We have threats from wind as the storm passes by. We have increasing threats from tornadoes as feeder bands move through and we have increasing threat for a lot of rain in a short amount of time,” said Womble.

That is why some people sought shelter at George Jenkins High School Tuesday.

“It’s not safe. I have family,” said Jamie Rodriguez, who lives in a mobile home in Lakeland.

“The life is first. The life is first,” said Nicole Torres Vigo.

“It’s not good to take chances so if I think that it’s not stable enough, I might as well go ahead and look for a shelter,” said Victor Gonzalez, who lives in Lakeland.

Tom Patton, the principal at George Jenkins High School, said the school has seen anywhere between 16 people to 600 people in past storms.

“It does make you feel good like you’re giving something back to the community, giving them that peace of mind at least for a little while until they’ve got to go back out and figure things out,” said Tom Patton.

Shelters are available in Polk County beginning at noon Tuesday:

Horizons Elementary School1700 Forest Lake Dr, Davenport
Sleepy Hill Elementary School2285 Sleepy Hill Rd, Lakeland
R. Bruce Wagner Elementary School5500 Yates Rd, Lakeland
Chain Of Lakes Elementary School7001 Hwy 653, Winter Haven
Mulberry Middle School500 SE Martin Luther King Jr Ave, Mulberry
Spessard Holland Elementary 2342 E.F. Griffin Rd, Bartow
Auburndale High School1 Bloodhound Trail, Auburndale
Citrus Ridge Academy1775 Sand Mine Rd, Davenport
George Jenkins High School6000 Lakeland Highlands Rd, Lakeland
Highlands Grove Elementary4510 Lakeland Highlands Rd, Lakeland
Kathleen High School1100 Red Devil Way, Lakeland
Lake Marion Creek Middle School3055 Lake Marion Creek Dr, Poinciana
Winter Haven High School600 6th St SE, Winter Haven

Pet friendly shelters that will be open Tuesday, September 27 at 12:00 p.m. are located here:

Tenoroc High School4905 Saddle Creek Rd., Lakeland
Lake Region High School1995 Thunder Road, Eagle Lake
Haines City High School2800 Hornet Drive, Haines City

Pet owners must bring shot records for their pets, an airline-approved carrying case or crate and pet food.

Special Needs shelters will also open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, for those residents with special medical needs. Polk County Emergency Management’s Special Needs Program is designed to provide shelter and/or transportation for residents with medical or physical conditions and/or dependent on medical electrical equipment who require assistance during an emergency.

The Special Needs shelters are located at:

FDOH Polk Specialty Care Unit1255 Brice Blvd., Bartow
McKeel Academy1810 W. Parker St., Lakeland
Ridge Community High School500 Orchid Dr., Davenport