RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Even as parts of the U.S. are being devastated by tornadoes, hurricane season it just beginning - officially this Saturday. One of the toughest decisions for people when a storm is approaching is whether to evacuate. Pets add to that dilemma, since most shelters don't accept animals. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Adam Ragusea tells us about a new evacuation center that's trying to change that.
ADAM RAGUSEA, BYLINE: The SAFE Center is at Fort Valley State University. That's right in the middle of Georgia, near the crossroads of two major hurricane evacuation routes - one from Florida, the other from the Georgia coast. The center was the vision of George McCommon, now its interim director.
GEORGE MCCOMMON: We're specifically designed for 105 dogs, 80 cats and 30-plus horses.
RAGUSEA: So if you imagine the entire state of Florida evacuating up I-75, they could line up in a big, long queue right in this circle, dropping off their pets...
RAGUSEA: ...and then get out of Dodge.
And why would that be necessary? For one thing, Red Cross shelters almost never take pets. Lou Palm is a readiness coordinator with the Red Cross in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
LOU PALM: A very diverse population comes to a Red Cross shelter. You're going to have people with allergies to animals, people with outright fears of animals.
RAGUSEA: Pet-friendly hotels are often in short supply during an emergency, and certainly, not everyone can afford one.
PALM: We saw this in Katrina. We saw it again in Sandy. People will not leave if they think their pets are not going to be taken care of.
RAGUSEA: That makes pet safety a matter of public safety, one that in 2006 rose to the level of Congress. Here's the late California Representative Tom Lantos arguing in favor of the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
REPRESENTATIVE TOM LANTOS: The scene from New Orleans of a nine-year-old little boy crying because he was not allowed to take his little white dog Snowball was too much to bear.
RAGUSEA: The law now requires states to develop pet evacuation plans, in return for disaster relief money. Some local authorities responded by converting buses into mobile pet shelters. Others worked out deals with hotels to take in animals they wouldn't normally accept. In Georgia, the solution was this permanent pet bunker that George McCommon is showing off.
MCCOMMON: We have the cat room around here. We have the stainless steel cages, sinks.
RAGUSEA: Sorry, I'm just imagining 80 cats in this echo-y room, weathering a storm.
MCCOMMON: Absolutely. And the whole the whole room's designed to be washed down to include the ceiling. It has the special lights that you can hose.
RAGUSEA: The facility is untested, though. It opened at the end of last year's hurricane season. So, I brought my Border Collie mix along to try out one of the cages.
MCCOMMON: Here you go, Lucy. You want to hop in?
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)
MCCOMMON: Here you go. Lucy said I thought we were going someplace fun.
RAGUSEA: To the obvious question - should every disaster-prone region have one of these - McCommon says he was probably only able to get Georgia funding because his facility can also take animals rescued from abuse cases. Even still...
MCCOMMON: In tight budget times, when this was approved, there were some state legislators that were debating on the need. And I have to say, fate intervened for us, because it's the only time a tornado went downtown Atlanta.
RAGUSEA: In 2008, right past the state capitol building, forcing decision-makers to contemplate whether they could leave a pet behind if a disaster came. For NPR News, I'm Adam Ragusea in Macon, Georgia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.