I recently worked for the first time at a local emergency shelter during Hurricane Irma in Central Florida. Most communities have a few types of shelters, and each is set up for serving different needs, including housing the general population, providing extra resources for people with special medical needs, and housing homeless people. This particular shelter where I worked was open to ‘people with pets.’
All in all, my shelter was well run with caring, knowledgeable staff. Most all of the residents made the best of it and helped each other feel comfortable. Community organizations including a local Salvation Army team brought extra meals and supplies. Based on my experience over these few days, I really think most shelters are a good option when it isn’t possible to stay with family or friends, or to evacuate out of the area altogether.
I thought I’d share a few personal observations from my time there, and some tips for planning for a future emergency shelter stay.
PLAN: Know your local climate and seasonal weather issues. And even beyond weather, it really can’t be overstated to have a general emergency plan with a checklist in place for preparing your home and the possibility of an evacuation. Be as ready as you can, and you’ll save yourself and your family a lot of anxiety.
PETS: In my emergency ‘people with pets’ shelter, we had dozens of dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, turtles and hermit crabs! All pets had to remain inside a secure carrier or crate at all times. The only exception was for a brief dog walk, always on a leash, outside when weather permitted or inside in designated spaces during the height of the storm. Then right back into their carrier they went.
If you have an animal, get yourself an appropriate crate to have on hand for times of emergency. For cats, have a crate that is large enough to also have a small litter box inside. Pets that get along well can share larger crates.
Our shelter did have many crates in different sizes available to loan to people, but it was not a limitless supply. I’m sure there are other pet shelters that don’t have those resources. There are many types of crates and cages that collapse and stow away easily. I recommend all pet owners have the appropriate type and size of crate for their animal’s comfort.
Not all shelters allow pets. Of those that do, some shelters allow crated pets to stay with you in your shelter space. At most others, pets must stay in a separate area of the shelter facility. Know what is available in your area and what is required for pets.
Have a copy of current pet vaccination papers handy for quick gathering when needed. You may or may not be asked to show them, but have them ready just in case. In addition to a crate, bring pet food and treats, collars/leashes, waste bags, scoopable kitty litter, and various clean-up supplies. Everyone cleans up after their own pets. It’s also useful to have a sheet to throw over the pet crate. This really helps keep pets calm and quiet.
BEDDING/CHAIRS: I really recommend something to get you off the floor, like a cot, an air bed, a lightweight mattress, a foam pad, lawn chairs (layout and sitting types), a bean bag chair, whatever is easy to carry and setup yourself. For many, it can be difficult getting up off the floor, and it gets cold down there. Bring enough blankets, sleeping bags, sheets and pillows for your family.
SUPPLIES: Bring a cooler with plenty of food and ice, water, snacks, medication, layers of clothes (because they usually crank the air conditioning while the electricity is still working), flip flops as well as shoes and socks, a jacket or sweater, flashlights, batteries, device chargers, activities and games, various paper and cleaning supplies, trash bags, and lots of patience for you, your family and your pet/s for possibly several days. Make it fun for the kids. Let them be involved in the planning and prepping as you feel comfortable. Let them know that they are safe and well taken care of. It can be like indoor camping!
Finally — and this is just me saying this, because everyone is truly responsible to bring everything they could need for themselves — if you have an extra blanket or two, or a couple of pillows to spare, maybe some extra water or snacks, pack them in. There are so many people who have so little; elderly that are very frail; people that may be alone or without familial support; people that do all they can just to get themselves and their pets to safety. It would be wonderful to able to share extra resources with a shelter-mate in need. I saw this happening during my shift, and it was amazing to witness these compassionate acts.
Many shelter residents also pitched in and helped out with unloading fellow residents’ gear, checking and restocking bathroom supplies, tidying up, and just wherever they could be useful. It was tremendous!
I hope these tips are helpful for you in thinking about a new or updating your existing home emergency and evacuation plan, especially if you have dear pets in the family.
If you’ve had a positive emergency shelter experience, or have some helpful tips to add, please share in the comment section below.
Wishing you many safe and sunny days to come!