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Don't wait for a plan to evacuate for pet sake

Published September 14, 2005

[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Paul Berry of the Best Friends Animal Society rescues the last of four dogs from a flooded apartment complex in New Orleans.

Times photos: Images of rescued pets

Complete Times coverage of Hurricane Katrina

I keep thinking about something Times reporter Brady Dennis told me he saw while he was covering the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina.

He was reporting from a boat going past flooded, abandoned houses in New Orleans. Here and there, he'd see a dog sitting on a porch, staring as he passed by. The dogs looked hungry, and hopeful. Probably they were waiting for their owners to come and get them.

If you like animals, some of the stories about them in Katrina's wake have been tough to take. One woman offered rescuers her wedding rings to let her bring her pets, but there was no room in the boat. "I just hope that they forgive me," she said in an Associated Press story.

A little boy waiting to get on a bus in New Orleans cried when a police officer took away his dog. Another dog was left tied beneath an overpass with an unopened can of dog food and a sign that said, "Please take care of my dog, his name is Chucky."

I'm not repeating these stories to add to the sick feeling we've all had since the scenes of suffering began to pile up in front of us. And I'm in no way forgetting the loss of human life and the people shattered by all of this.

But we've been looking for lessons in what Hurricane Katrina did to the Gulf Coast.

Here's something we can think about: Those of us who own dogs and cats can be responsible enough to make plans for them ahead of time. And officials can better prepare for the absolute fact that some people who don't have the means to find a place for their pets aren't going anywhere without them.

To a lot of us, pets are family. We like them better than we do some people. We have a large elderly population, many who live with dogs or cats as their closest companions. Disaster planners are learning the hard way that many people who have no pet-friendly places to go as a storm approaches will hunker down and try to ride it out. Even in mobile homes.

Officials are slowly, slowly responding.

One pet-friendly shelter will open in Pinellas County at the courthouse in St. Petersburg at 545 First Ave N., with room for 400 dogs and cats. Hillsborough County has plans to make room for 100 dogs and 100 cats at Burnett Middle School in Seffner. Pasco hopes to have something in place by the end of hurricane season (Nov. 30, for those of us counting the days.)

It's not enough, considering that Hillsborough alone has nearly a half-million dogs and cats.

Officials in both Hillsborough and Pinellas say they hope to get more pet-friendly space.

"Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to have more," said Gary Vickers, director of Pinellas County Emergency Management. "This is only a start for us.

"It's not acceptable to have people stay in their homes and die because there's no place that will allow them to bring their pet with them."

Considering most planners don't think they have enough room to shelter people who would need it in the case of a Category 5 hurricane, getting more pet-friendly space may take a while.

But until there's plenty of it, in widespread places that people can easily get to, we won't begin to chip away at the complex psychology of those who won't leave their homes in the face of disaster.

And here's something planners keep telling us that needs to be repeated: Those of us who can, need to make arrangements with family or friends who are willing to take us in with our pets. We need to check with kennels and pet-friendly hotels and motels ahead of time. (A helpful Web site called lists them by county.)

The key is planning, same as learning your evacuation route and buying plenty of drinking water. No one wants to have to make the choices some of our neighbors faced about the fate of a member of the family.

--Sue Carlton can be reached at

[Last modified September 14, 2005, 02:15:34]

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