When it came time to open more schools as shelters as Hurricane Irma made her northerly turn through the Florida Keys and Naples with a bead on Wesley Chapel, Pasco County Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning didn’t hesitate to open seven more schools as shelters on Sept. 9, at 3 p.m., 30 or so hours before the storm rolled through our area as a high Category 1 or low Category 2 hurricane.
And pets, surprisingly, we’re allowed at all of them.
That wasn’t an easy call for Browning to make — of the 14 shelters originally opened in Pasco, pets were allowed at just two.
But, Browning knew that many residents would rather suffer “Irmageddon” with their animals in tow than without them, and he knew it wasn’t time to worry about the mess the animals would leave behind.
“We made them all pet shelters because, the fact of the matter is, and I don’t want to be morbid about it is, but it’s a lot easier cleaning up dog poop than it is carrying out body bags,’’ Browning said.
Browning had just left the kennel area at Wiregrass Ranch High (WRH), which he acknowledged wasn’t pretty. He called it a madhouse.
“Have you been in the pet room?,’’ volunteer Kate Fletcher, a seventh grade civics teacher at John Long Middle School, asked. “It’s a zoo, literally. It’s a menagerie.”
Not only were there cats and dogs, she said, but there were birds, a snake, a ferret and rabbits and hamsters. “Pretty much any animal you can think of as a pet,’’ her daughter Maddy, 15, who also was volunteering, chimed in.
In the open breezeways at WRH, near the gymnasium where the pets were housed, people milled about with their dogs, taking slow walks around the campus while chatting on the phone, as news that the storm was on its way created a stir.
The bond between pets and their owners — or parents, as some pet owners would refer to themselves — is a strong one.
“It’s a fascinating dynamic,’’ Browning said. “We had people calling the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) today, and even shelters, and saying if I can’t bring my pets in, I’m not coming.”
For some, even the shelters were tough to handle. One woman, according to Fletcher, was in hysterics about having to crate her dog in the gym from 9 p.m.-7 a.m.
She cried as she pleaded with anyone that would listen to her, begging for the dog to be left with her. She even threatened to just leave with the dog, so they would not have to be separated.
Fletcher said she stepped in and told the woman that “36 hours of having your dog freaked out, is that worse than one or potentially both of you not getting through this?”
John and Elaine Goacher of New Port Richey sat on a maroon iron bench watching the other dogs while feeding treats to Pepper, their 12-year-old Dalmation/Labrador mix.
They couldn’t sleep the night before, so they left the morning of the 10th for safety. They contemplated heading north towards family, but decided on Wesley Chapel.
“It had to be somewhere we could take Pepper, that was for sure,’’ said John, who noted that he passed up a number of other shelters as they drove east across the county.
It was the Goachers’ first hurricane, but they suspect it wasn’t Pepper’s. They adopted her from a rescue in Alabama, who said she was one of many puppies taken in after Hurricane Katrina, which slammed the Gulf Coast in 2005.
Maybe that explained Pepper’s unusually calm demeanor.