No matter how emergency managers say it, no matter how grave their predictions, people wait for the last minute to prepare.
Were a hurricane to hit the Tampa Bay area today, the opening day of hurricane season, tens of thousands of individuals with special needs would not be registered for appropriate shelters, local health agencies say.
In Hillsborough County, about 3,000 people have registered for special needs accommodations, a fraction of the estimated 15,000 who may need extra care. Across the bay, 1,500 of an estimated 20,000 have signed up.
This is a recurring frustration for emergency management officials, who fear an eleventh-hour struggle of trying to accommodate vulnerable populations.
"You can't just wait until the storm gets here," said Pinellas County emergency management spokesman Tom Iovino.
All residents are encouraged to establish a hurricane plan that addresses what to do in the event of an evacuation. But procrastination is especially dangerous for individuals with special needs, medical conditions and pets, officials say.
"Relative to the number of people who need these services, there's still a large population we need to reach," said Keeley Smith, the Hillsborough County coordinator for special needs shelters.
Three of the 32 shelters in Pinellas and three of the 48 in Hillsborough will offer services for vulnerable populations. That care includes on-site doctors, nurses and generators to support medical equipment.
Of course, not everyone will need to be in a shelter. And for most it should be a "last-ditch" effort, Iovino said. Staying with family or a friend will be more comfortable. Plus, the shelters lack capacity for every individual with special needs.
Bottom line, officials said, is everyone needs some kind of plan. And that means contacting the right people now.
It's the same story with pet owners.
"During Hurricane Katrina, we saw people who wouldn't evacuate because they were protecting the only family member they had — their pet," said Hillsborough County Animal Services spokeswoman Marti Ryan. "No one wants to see that tragedy again."
Pet-friendly shelters will be established throughout the Tampa Bay area, with three in Pinellas and four in Hillsborough.
Animal owners must register to reserve a spot at one of Pinellas County's pet friendly shelters. So far, fewer than 20 have signed up. In Hillsborough, owners and their pets will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.
The shelters are mostly meant for dogs, cats and rabbits. Snakes and other reptiles will be turned away.
If people choose to take refuge in one of these shelters, they should come prepared with identification, proof of their pet's vaccinations and a cage, Ryan said.
Pet shelters, Iovino repeated, should be a last resort.
Ryan emphasized the importance of not leaving a pet behind in a hurricane-induced frenzy.
"The animal ends up on the streets. . . . They become aggressive and dangerous," she said. "They can't fend for themselves and they become a danger to others."
Because the area has not suffered a direct blow from a hurricane in more than 90 years, authorities can plan based only on estimates and simulations.
A real storm, they said, could change everything.
"You only get so many rehearsals for a disaster before you have to do it for real," Ryan said. "That's why preparation is so key."
Marissa Lang can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804.