As Hurricane Dorian threatened the North Carolina coast, the Santiago family wasn’t leaving anyone behind — including a dog, two kittens and a guinea pig.
“Her name is Kisses,” said 6-year-old Mia Santiago, who held the red, brown and white guinea pig to her chest.
The Wilmington family, which included Emmanuel Santiago, his wife and two children, along with his two sisters and their families, came to the evacuation shelter set up at a former Sears at Northgate Mall in Durham.
Mia’s cousins Jenny, 8, and Josue Santiago, 4, held the kittens, Tinkerbell and Blaze.
“She is so sweet, and she doesn’t bite at all,” said Jenny about the gray and white kitten Tinkerbell. “She sleeps with me all the time.”
About 1,500 people had entered shelters across the state, Gov. Roy Cooper said around early Thursday afternoon as he visited the Durham shelter.
About 25 people had checked into the Durham shelter, with more expected later in the day.
Out of the roughly 65 shelters that had opened across the state, about 20 were pet friendly, according to the state Department of Public Safety website.
The state has been working for years to find ways to accommodate pets, said Keith Acree, a spokesperson for the department.
Companion animal mobile equipment trailers, filled with pat-care supplies, have been stationed across the state, Acree said.
The newer thing over the past couple of years is a companion animal support trailer, an air conditioned trailer with the kennel built in, Acree said.
The Durham shelter at Northgate mall had both. The state provided the one filled with equipment, and Guilford County provided and staffed the trailer with a kennel, where the animals were kept.
The importance of sheltering pets was highlighted after Hurricane Katrina flooded much of the Gulf Coast in 2005, experts said.
About one-third of individuals who didn’t evacuate said they did so by choice, and about 44 percent said they didn’t want to leave their pets, according to a Katrina evacuee study commissioned by the Fritz Institute.
The PETS Act
In 2006, the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, known as the PETS Act was adopted. The federal law required counties to include pet sheltering in evacuation planning, Acree said.
“It doesn’t say every shelter has to accommodate pets, but it says the county has to have plan,” Acree said.
The act designates FEMA as taking a lead when a federal disaster has been declared and state and local resources are overwhelmed, wrote Sheila H. Goffe, vice president of government relations for the American Kennel Club, in an email.
“Specifically, the PETS Act authorizes FEMA to provide rescue, care, shelter, and essential needs for individuals with household pets and service animals, and to the household pets and animals themselves following a major disaster or emergency,” she wrote.
The PETS Act, along with other reforms, enabled FEMA to provide resources or reimbursement for temporary protection, sheltering and care of household pets when a federal state of emergency has been declared, she wrote.
In addition, nonprofits, including a pet recovery affiliate of the American Kennel Club known as AKC Reunite, have donated sheltering supplies in North Carolina and other states.
A psychological boost
At the Durham mall shelter, three dogs, two cats and one guinea pig were in the companion animal trailer, with their owners able to walk and visit with them until 10 p.m.
In Cumberland County, where 70 people were in two shelters as of 3 p.m. Thursday, five pets were being housed, according to a news release.
Cooper said state officials know pets are important to families, who will sometimes risk their lives to go back and save their animals. Accommodating pets in shelters also provides a psychological boost for families, he said.
“I think it is important that we have places for pets and that these families can feel as much at home as possible,” he said.
Emmanuel Santiago said his family wasn’t going to risk staying in their home after they saw what happened during Hurricane Florence.
Last year the family evacuated before Florence, and when they returned they found a tree smashed through the room that they had thought was their safe place.
“Now we have decided we would rather be safe than sorry,” he said.
The home was destroyed, and they have since moved, he said.
He’s glad that the shelter takes pets, but even if it didn’t they probably would have brought them but left them in the car.
“The animals are part of the family,” he said. “We were so happy that we were able to be with them and see them. We know they are secure, and we know where they are at.”
Shelters in and near the Triangle
▪ The former Sears at Northgate Mall, 1620 Guess Road, Durham.
▪ North Johnston Middle School, 301 E, Main St. Micro.
Both shelters are pet friendly.
An N.C. Department of Public Safety list of roughly 65 shelters across the state can be found here.