MANATEE -- Many lessons have been learned since Manatee County was last threatened with a hurricane over a decade ago. Officials now urge residents to create an emergency plan that includes their pets should the need to evacuate arise.
Should a tropical storm or hurricane threaten Manatee County, three of the county's 25 shelters are designated pet shelters.
Pet shelters, however, should be considered a place of last resort, said Don Hermey, Manatee County Emergency Management Chief. He urges pet owners to plan ahead.
"Reach out to your primary veterinarian to develop options," Hermey said. "Do not abandon animals, do not let them loose."
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The designated pet shelters will only take what the Federal Emergency Management Agency's definition of a household pet is. That does not include farm animals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish.
Some of the prohibited animals are registered with tracking chips and there can be legal repercussions for abandoning them, Hermey added.
Shelters are also not the most comfortable scenario. Residents who turn to shelters will be placed in classrooms with the desks pushed aside along with thousands of others and it can be days ,depending on the aftermath.
Preregistration for pets at shelters is only required for special-needs residents, he added.
"We want people to start planning now, develop their plans and network with friends or families that are not in an evacuation area," Hermey said. "I'm hoping Danny is something that never bothers Florida and I'm hoping for another quiet season."
In addition to a list of supplies the shelter requires of pet-owners -- detailed in the Manatee County Disaster
Planning Guide and accompanying table -- the shelter also has rules:
Pet owners must provide proof of updated vaccinations.
Pet owners cannot permit others to handle their pets.
Pet owners are solely responsible for care, feeding and handling of their pets.
Pets must remain in carriers except during feeding and walking times.
Animals can often sense something before and during a storm, so keeping them enclosed is as much for their safety as it is others.
Hermey also encourages pet-owners to come with a picture of themselves with their pet that can act as additional proof of ownership.
The county consults with veterinarian Dr. Terry Clekis of Braden River Animal Hospital, who as the disaster committee chairman at the Florida Veterinary Medical Association helps to organize and network other local veterinarians.
Without a threat of storm in so many years, Clekis said people have "hurricane amnesia" and are more reluctant to plan. Having a plan is crucial in the event of a disaster, both natural and man-made, he said.
"If you have a plan, you are more likely to do better than if you don't" Clekis said.
Owners of exotic pets really need to plan ahead, he said, since they are not permitted in shelters or hotels and motels.
Clekis agrees it's best for pet-owners to consult with their veterinarians ahead of time especially if they are considering boarding their pets during a storm. Not all veterinary offices or kennels will be boarding animals during a storm, based on their location in a flood zone.
As an island-resident and pet owner, Commissioner Carol Whitmore is all too familiar with the hesitation of pet-owners to evacuate when they have nowhere to take their pets and refuse to leave them behind.
Whitmore recalled the mandatory evacuation during her tenure as Holmes Beach mayor as Hurricane Charley was threatening Manatee County. At the time her husband was out of town, she said.
The problem: she drove a Volkswagen Beetle at the time and had two large dogs and a cat, with nowhere to take them. Manatee County at the time did not allow pets in any of their shelters.
"No way was I going to leave my animals," Whitmore said.
She soon got a call from then-Commissioner Joe McClash telling her she needed to evacuate and found somewhere she and her pets could go.
"It was very hard, I had to get everything and my animals into a Beetle," Whitmore.
After Charley, Whitmore said county officials, led my by McClash, realized the need for having shelters that permitted animals.
Today, Whitmore said she has everything ready on standby should she need to evacuate and urges other residents to do the same.
"They need to call their vet and get updated records," Whitmore said.
Whitmore agrees with Hermey that residents should try to find alternatives other than a shelter because space is limited.
"First you have to have a plan, that should be a plan B and C," Whitmore said. "Just don't take anything for granted and don't wait until the last minute."
If boarding an animal it is important to remember that those veterinarian offices will be closing too so plan ahead of the storm, she said.
Manatee County Pet-friendly shelters are:
Bradenton River High School
Manatee High School
Mills Elementary School
Pet-friendly hotels/motels in Manatee County are:
Quality Inn Bradenton-Sarasota North
Best Western Plus Bradenton Hotel and Suites
Best Western Plus Manatee Hotel
Bradenton Days Inn Near the Gulf.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.