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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Storm Shelter for Pets will not be Used for Hurricane Wilma

North Fort Myers, Florida

Nearly 200 pet owners and their favorite animals will have to find somewhere else to ride out Hurricane Wilma.

After the hurricanes of 2004, county officials had planned to use the Lee Civic Center in North Fort Myers as a storm shelter for people and their pets as long as owners stayed on the premises.

With that in mind, owners of 105 dogs, 42 cats, 18 birds and 193 people had preregistered ahead of Hurricane Wilma.

But the 15,000 square-foot building is only approved to withstand a Category 1 storm, or the winds of a Category 2 storm that moves along the coast without making landfall.

Wilma's Category 4 and 5 winds were not part of the equation. So the center will not be opened as a shelter for pets.

"You're going to have people there as well as animals," said Paul Filla, spokesman for Lee County public safety. "Not that you care any less for pets, but there would be people there, and the building would not be able to withstand a stronger storm."

The county invested thousands of dollars on storm shutters and flooring material for the pets. The question is: Who evacuates for a Category 1 storm and why not find a stronger building during the planning stage?

"Every time a building goes up that can withstand a Category 3 or stronger storm, we are using it for people," Filla said, noting most of those are schools.

He said the weak pet shelter still could be useful for smaller storms and pet owners who abandoned mobile homes to leave low-lying areas along the coast.

The Humane Society of Lee County is making room for lost, abandoned or endangered animals during the storm.

The facility airlifted 49 dogs Thursday. They were taken to Alabama before going on to shelters in Indiana and Pennsylvania, where they will be put up for adoption, shelter director Tracy Jones said.

The shelter has about 50 dogs left, half from Hurricane Katrina that are not well enough to travel.

Moving the other dogs will allow them to take in about 50 more. They also have about 100 cats, with room for another 30.

"We will end up with (more) pets one way or another, regardless of if we get hit hard or someone else gets hit hard," she said.

The building weathered Charley, and staff is preparing for Wilma.

"We are a concrete building," Jones said. "Right now, we are boarding up all of our windows and entryways and making sure everything is secure."

At least for Wilma, the owners of pets will have to make their own arrangements.


Jody Van Cooney of Lee County Red Cross understands the dilemma faced by pet owners but said the Red Cross cannot allow pets into its shelters.

"Too many people are allergic, and all sorts of problems can arise with pets," she said.

She understands it can cause people to stay home in a dangerous storm.

"We know there are a lot of people out there who won't abandon their pets," she said. "We all did see what happened in New Orleans."

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