Sunday, December 10, 2017
Tampa Bay Weather

A man and his dog; to shelter or not

DUNEDIN — Donnie Duncan's German shepherd sniffed the dirt at Caladesi RV Park on Sunday afternoon, while Hurricane Irma's impact was still only a drizzle.

"She knows it's coming," Duncan said.

Duncan, 64, and 4-year-old Deja' had driven to the pet-friendly Dunedin Middle School early that morning to check into the shelter, but Duncan said officials told him the school's animal section was full.

He could stay, but Deja' would have to be transported to Animal Services. Or they could find another pet-friendly shelter together.

About a half-tank of gas left in his truck, Duncan said he drove to Palm Harbor University High School, but they were taking only service animals at that time.

When he got to Clearwater Fundamental Middle and realized pet owners had to keep their animals housed separately from where they'd sleep, Duncan threw his hands in the air and drove home.

"I know it may sound crazy to other people, but she is all I got, man," Duncan said. "I've never left her more than two weeks in her life. I wasn't going to do that now in a hurricane."

Pinellas County Schools spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said facilities officials never turned evacuees away Sunday without giving them options: Duncan, for example, was told he could have stayed at Dunedin Middle immediately if he sent his dog with Animal Services.

Because it was before the "window of imminent danger" on Sunday, Duncan also could have driven to another pet-friendly shelter with space.

But about 1 p.m., Emergency Operations officials went into critical mode, and all shelter locations began accepting any evacuee with or without pets and regardless of the location's capacity.

By that time, Duncan was already making plans to ride out Irma's impact with Deja' in his neighbor's trailer, which was farther away from a creek than his pop-out.

Florida is the only place that has ever made Duncan leave his native Texas. He moved here 10 years ago, keeping a long-distance relationship with his partner of 28 years, Linda McNair, "the one I should have married."

After McNair died of a heart attack in 2015, it's been just him and Deja'.

"This is Donnie and Deja' and it's a beautiful day in paradise," Duncan's voicemail states cheerfully. "Leave us a message. We'll call you back, and we'll see ya when we see ya."

He wasn't afraid of Irma. A truck driver and construction worker, he said he's endured three waist-high floods of his RV park during his eight years there.

But by Sunday afternoon, after hearing every shelter was taking all evacuees with or without pets, Duncan reconsidered.

He drove to Dunedin Elementary School about 3 p.m., by this time housing about 1,000 people.

It had started accepting pets only a few hours earlier, and he decided fewer animals would be less stressful for Deja' than the middle school next door, which had been taking in pets for three days.

By 4 p.m. Sunday, 20,500 people had evacuated to 17 Pinellas County emergency shelters.

But while Duncan struggled to find a parking space at the packed school and find the entrance point, he called his neighbors at the RV park.

They told him Irma had been downgraded to a Category 2.

"Oh, we can handle that," Duncan said.

So again, Duncan and Deja' loaded in the truck, headed for home.

"God is good, God is great, I'm great," he said. "We're going to get through this."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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