To the owners of the million-plus registered pets in the Tampa Bay area, beware.
Hillsborough County has only four hurricane shelters that will accept cats and dogs. Pinellas County has three. Pasco has one.
Not enough to accommodate a million pets.
"People need to realize that if animals are a part of their family, they need to take full responsibility for them," said SPCA Tampa Bay director Connie Brooks. "They can't rely on the government to do that for them."
And if you have a turtle, a rabbit, a tarantula, a ferret, a potbellied pig or any other pet that is not a cat or dog, you have even less outside support. No matter how big or small, naughty or well-behaved, they will not be allowed through the door of an emergency shelter.
Of all of the important warnings county emergency officials try to get out to their residents, the message about animals is often lost. Even the most well-prepared families sometimes forget about their pets, until it's too late.
Hurricane Katrina presented one of the more tragic examples of this, as so many in New Orleans refused to evacuate without their pets, knowing their animals wouldn't survive if they were left behind. That decision likely cost many people their lives, and an estimated 600,000 pets died or were left homeless.
The Tampa Bay area could avoid such an outcome if people would plan ahead, local emergency managers say.
Very few hotels allow animals, even in an emergency. And even shelters that accept them require preregistration.
"No one should be relying on shelters as part of their plan," Brooks said. "Shelters should be for when you have a plan, but that plan somehow falls through."
Your best bet is to have an agreement with friends or family members to take you and your pets in if you need to evacuate, said Pinellas County emergency manager Tom Iovino.
Dog and cat owners should know that even if they get into a shelter, the term "pet-friendly" is a bit misleading. The pets will not stay at their sides. For safety reasons, the animals will be put in a separate room, stacked crate-to-crate, with only the occasional visit from owners.
"There will be a lot of barking and a lot of scared animals," Iovino said. "Finding a host family or leaving the area is the best option."
In rural areas, home to large animals such as cows or alpacas, sometimes the best plan is to leave them alone, said Brooks, who was part of a panel discussion on the issue at this year's National Hurricane Conference.
"Large animals can usually find shelter and know how to take care of themselves," Brooks said, adding that anyone who owns livestock can get disaster planning tips from state agriculture officials.
But for the typical pet owner, she said, plan for your animals as you would plan for yourself or your children. Keep two weeks of pet food and medication in stock, keep any documents or records for the pet handy, and keep them indoors for the hours before and after a hurricane.
And if you must evacuate, Brooks said, think of shelters only as a last resort.
Emily Nipps can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8452.