As I write this week’s column, Hurricane Irma is barreling toward Florida.  She may slam into Miami, skim the east coast, wander up the center of the state, or even end up in the Gulf.  At this point, it is looking grim for the entire state, but we are as ready as it is possible to be for something of this magnitude and uncertainty.

Every resident of Florida knows what goes into making a hurricane plan.  In the spring, well before any hurricanes are forming, residents stock up on water, non-perishable foods, batteries, flashlights, candles, and lanterns.  We purchase extra cans of gasoline and test our generators.  Important records and documents are stowed in Rubbermaid bins and kept easily accessible.  Pets have all current vaccinations, records, food, and medications at the ready with their kennels. 

We’re on top of this.  Right?  Well…

Hurricane Irma is a great example for all of us that maybe we aren’t quite as prepared as we should be.  There really shouldn’t be long lines at the stores and the community shouldn’t run out of bread, water, and gasoline before a storm hits.  If everyone is well prepared in advance, there should be no need for a last-minute panic.  But there was.  There always is.

It is a daunting task to prepare your home and family for an approaching storm, especially if you have a dog or cat.  Imagine the complexity of having to care for 243 “pets” and not only ensuring their safety during a storm, but caring for them afterward, in uncertain conditions.   Not to mention the number of injured ones that will flood in after the storm has passed.

This is the dilemma Peace River Wildlife Center faces during hurricane season.  Our dedicated staff of employees and volunteers not only have to get their own homes in order, they help us with the monumental task of making preparations to shelter the animals in our care.

Currently PRWC has 100 permanent resident animals, 92 of which are birds.  Our patient load as of two days before Irma is scheduled to make landfall in the U.S. is 143—46 birds, 92 mammals, and 5 reptiles.  Each of these animals must be made safe from the approaching storm and cared for until it is ready to be released or, in the case of our residents, for the rest of its life.

Since our facility is located right on Charlotte Harbor, we are in a precarious position for storm surge, wind, and flooding from excessive rainfall.  Unfortunately, evacuating many of our animals would be more stressful for them than sheltering in place.  Evacuation is not always recommended or even possible. 

Florida is a long, narrow peninsula.  There are only two major roads running north and south.  These roads should be kept clear as a storm approaches for those that are required to leave and for trucks bringing in supplies and workers to assist in recovery efforts.

We take small birds, mammals, and land reptiles inside for the duration of a storm.  Every animal in a habitat that tends to flood must be moved to another cage.  We make sure there are places the remaining animals can get out of the wind and rain when staying within their habitats. 

Preparations include ordering and storing as much food as we can possibly fit in our freezers, in case we cannot get our regular weekly shipments after a storm.  We can go through 500 pounds of thread herring and 50 pounds of smelt in a week.  Our raptors eat over $1,000 worth of frozen rodents and chicks every week.  We have 5 different liquid diets for baby birds, depending on the species.  Are they insectivores, herbivores, carnivores, pescivores, or omnivores?  We also stock six different types of baby mammal formulas, depending on species and age. 

Our windows are boarded and our generator tested.  Plenty of gasoline and water has been stored.  (A special thanks to the person who took two empty five-gallon water jugs from the office.  We were planning to fill them with tap water to help with cleaning cages in case the water goes out.  What kind of despicable person steals from a non-profit trying to help injured animals at a time like this?)

We have stocked up on medications, gloves, and as much fresh food as we can stuff into our refrigerators.  We have refilled our oxygen tanks (hats off again to Southern Oxygen for their support!)  If the power is out and we can’t do laundry, we will have to rely on newspapers to line the cages, instead of the sheets and pillowcases we usually use. 

There are some special creatures that will be taken off-site.  Our more critical patients that need medication and other treatments will go home with rehabbers.  When we run out of caging space in the hospital and surgical ward, the rest of the residents that cannot remain in their habitats will go home with other staff members. 

We also have to assemble crates and carriers to place these animals in, whether they are being moved inside or off-site.  We have many kennels, but storage is at a premium, so they are taken apart to be stored, collapsed on themselves.  Thanks to coverage by the Sun, community members have offered to help with constructing kennels and transporting any animals that need to be moved.

Computers and essential paperwork will be stored off-site as well.  The buildings we are in now are woefully inadequate.  The good news is that our new facility will be built to current codes and will be strong enough to withstand more severe weather than our existing structures.  The bad news is that new facility is at least one hurricane season away.

Best case scenario, Irma will pass us by and this has been a great test of our emergency preparedness plan.  Worst case scenario, no amount of preparation will have mattered.  More than likely, the scenario we face will be somewhere in between.  The good news is that natural disasters tend to bring people together.  Friends, neighbors, and even enemies work toward a common goal, temporarily forgetting about the ridiculous things that we allow to divide us at times.

by-Robin Jenkins, DVM