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Pets lacking a haven from hurricanes

Pasco County, with no animal-friendly evacuation shelter, says it could select a site for one today.

By DAVID DECAMP
Published June 1, 2007


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NEW PORT RICHEY - Another hurricane season starts today without a public storm shelter that accepts pets in Pasco County.

"The people who sit here in Shady Hills, something needs to be out there for them, unless you live in a big house, " said mobile home resident Judy Shadwick, 47, who said she rode out the 2004 storms at home with her five dogs because no public shelters would accept pets. "We're poor."

But the absence is more glaring this year, because the county has not complied with a 2006 federal law requiring pets' safety be part of hurricane emergency plans, according to FloridaPets.net, which is compiling evacuation shelter data for every county in Florida.

By comparison, every surrounding county - Hernando, Hillsborough, Polk and Pinellas - has plans to operate pet-friendly shelters during storm evacuations.

Why? In areas without them, some pet owners refused to evacuate because they couldn't take their pets to safety, according to post-disaster surveys.

But the new law also is a new incentive. Without a plan for pets' safety during disasters, the law allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to withhold grants from the county.

Jim Martin, Pasco's emergency management director, said the county is not necessarily operating outside the law and risking FEMA money.

He said the county's predisaster plan includes public information efforts on pet safety; and the postdisaster plans being finished will include options for dealing with pets in the aftermath of a storm, Martin said.

And Pasco may have a pet-friendly shelter site soon, Martin said. He is working with the school district to pick a site, perhaps as early as today. Pasco has increasingly turned to public schools for shelters during the district's building boom the past few years.

For years, Pasco officials have said they could not find a suitable site that met health codes and allowed animals - and the cleanup that follows. Martin said he has been looking for a site since taking over 20 months ago, but found nothing suitable until recent talks with the school district.

"It's like they use it as an excuse," said Patricia Collier, operator of FloridaPets.net, a freelance writer who lives in Nassau County.

Until a site is found, owners must make arrangements with a private site outside the evacuation zones, such as a boarding location or a pet-friendly hotel, if they cannot stay with friends and family. But even Pasco's critics acknowledge a pet-friendly shelter should be no one's first option.

When Pasco nails down a site for a pet-friendly shelter, it will have a capacity for several hundred animals - a miniscule number for a county with 53, 000 registered dogs, for example.

"There's no way I can solve the housing equation" for all pets, Martin said, saying a pet-friendly shelter would be just a "Band-Aid."

Pasco also is 22, 000 beds short of the number it needs 50, 000 for the amount of people who would evacuate to shelters in a major hurricane.

Advocates say the lack of public shelter space for humans and pets alike is most troublesome for people who are poor. They often lack the means to evacuate to hotels.

The availability of pet shelters gained attention after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans two years ago. Tens of thousands of pets were abandoned, according to estimates.

Indeed, thousands of people failed to evacuate in Pasco during the hurricane-ravaged summer of 2004, and one reason was to stay with pets.

Shadwick and her husband, Gilbert, have tried to organize a group to push for a pet shelter. But a recent meeting exemplified the plight: No one showed up.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6232.

Fast Facts: Being prepared

Before a hurricane comes, experts recommend pet owners take the following steps:

- Determine which hotels, boarding facilities, friends or family outside the evacuation areas will accept you and your pet. Many animal service shelters cannot accept more pets because they're at capacity already.

- Make sure animals have correct information on ID tags on their collars. If possible, clip the address and name of the shelter to which you go to the pet's collar.

- Assemble a pet disaster kit with medications, records, photos of the pets, leashes, food and water, and the name of your veterinarian.

Source: Florida Division of Emergency Management

[Last modified June 1, 2007, 07:49:19]


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