Hurricane Charley was bearing down on Florida's southwest coast, only hours away from making landfall on Aug. 13, 2004.
In Pinellas County, the winds already were starting to pick up. Drivers of evacuation buses were thinking about getting off the road.
And numerous residents reliant on wheelchairs and oxygen tanks were calling Pinellas County Emergency Management, looking for help evacuating to shelters and safe ground.
By then, it was too late.
Special-needs patients should register with local emergency management before hurricane season even begins, said Tom Iovino, a Pinellas County spokesman.
That's the best way for special-needs patients to secure a spot in a special-needs shelter and enable emergency management workers to pick them up before the roads become unsafe, he said.
"You have to register well in advance so we can get the buses to you early," Iovino said.
Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties all maintain an evacuation plan for special-needs patients. Fire departments maintain lists, schedule pickups and work with school board transportation officials to ensure all registered special-needs patients are evacuated before a storm.
In Hillsborough County, about 2,600 special-needs patients are registered for evacuation assistance. Three shelters in Hillsborough can hold up to 1,750 patients.
Hillsborough County also registers special-needs patients who require intensive care. The Hillsborough Public Health Department currently has about 460 registered patients with intensive care needs.
Pinellas County Emergency Management has registered about 3,000 people for special-needs evacuation. Registered patients who are immobile or dependent on electricity for survival are transported to special-needs shelters. Of those registered, about 1,650 qualify for spots in the three special-needs shelters in Pinellas County. The shelters can hold about 4,300 special-needs patients in a worst case scenario.
Pinellas special-needs shelters are for patients with mobility needs and those dependent on electricity for survival.
The shelters are not capable of assisting those who require intensive care.
Patients who require intensive care should talk with their health care providers to make a plan for themselves, Iovino said.
"A shelter is a life boat, not a cruise ship," Iovino said. "It's going to be bare bones, just enough to survive. A shelter should be last resort."
In Hernando County, 681 people have registered for special-needs sheltering with a capacity of about 9,000.
Two shelters in Pasco County can hold 366 special-needs patients during a hurricane. About 1,500 have registered for special-needs evacuation assistance.
What to do now
To prepare for evacuation, people with special medical needs should pack 30 days worth of medications and supplies, a change of clothes and any critical documents, including a marriage document, birth certificate and banking, Social Security and health insurance cards.
Anyone evacuating to a special-needs shelter who normally uses a motorized scooter or wheelchair should bring regular wheelchairs and walkers to the shelter because there are not enough outlets in shelters to charge them, said Dianne Cox, a Hernando County Emergency Management specialist.
Those who normally use a walker should bring a wheelchair if they have one because they will be doing a lot of walking otherwise, Cox said. Wheelchairs will also give them a place to sit.
Registered special-needs residents who have family and friends to help them are not obligated to be picked up by the fire department.
However, registering for evacuation ensures that firefighters will pick them up if family and friends can't.
Residents are encouraged to register for special assistance before hurricane season, but will not be turned away if they have not registered in advance.