NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - With Hurricane Matthew barrelling down on the southeastern United States, Lindsay and Henry Barrios faced a potentially life-changing decision: whether to evacuate their South Carolina home.
They refused to go if it meant leaving their pet Chihuahua behind.
Fortunately for them, and their dog named Cash, many hurricane shelters now accept animals, a lesson learnt after Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans and large parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005. People showed up then at shelters with pets, only to find that shelters turned them away.
The Edmund A. Burns Elementary School hurricane shelter in North Charleston held 119 people, 19 dogs and eight cats on Friday. Among them were the Barrioses and Cash, from neighbouring Charleston.
“He’s a member of our family. He deserves to be safe,” Lindsay Barrios said.
Even at times of human misery brought about by natural disasters, people refuse to leave their pets behind.
So officials throughout the region affected by Hurricane Matthew, from South Carolina to Florida, have made sure pets were welcome at some shelters to make sure people get to safety, too.
“It absolutely is a lesson learnt from Hurricane Katrina,” said Trina Sheets, executive director of the National Emergency Management Association, a group representing state directors of emergency services.
In the aftermath of Katrina, rescue missions to save pets put people at risk and diverted resources.
“Every state in the nation has learnt that lesson, and whenever you see large-scale evacuations, you will also see shelters that open up that are able to accommodate pets,” Sheets said.
Burns Elementary School was one of three officially sanctioned pet-friendly hurricane shelters near Charleston and the best option for those who could not find a hotel that would accommodate their pets.
Families slept or sat on the hallway floors. They brought sleeping bags, groceries, cellphones and magazines. Dogs and cats were housed in cages away from their owners in the school library and were tended to by two police officers.
“Dogs and cats don’t get along, and then you have the problem of big dogs and little dogs, so we have them in cages and have to limit access,” Charleston County Sheriff’s Sergeant David Willis said.
The animals included his own white shepherd donning a ThunderShirt, a pressure vest that can calm the anxiety of large dogs that sense storms coming, Willis said.
“Small breeds couldn’t care less,” Willis added.
The room was quiet except for occasional barks and low howls coming from cloth-covered cages.
Owners were allowed three half-hour visits a day to walk, feed or talk to their pets.
“It’s like their kids,” Willis said.At the Team Stinkykiss Shelter in Aiken, South Carolina, demand was so great that it moved from a smaller space to a fairground to handle all the incoming pets. It had taken in 100 by midday Friday and was expecting as many as 250, director Teresa Cox said.
“They’re sad to be separated from their pets,” Cox said. “They’re dropping them off in tears.”
Reporting by Harriet McLeod, Gabriel Stargardter and Letitia Stein; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Will Dunham