Hurricane Irma People, Zoos, and Wildlife Centers Hunker Down
Hurricane Irma began its assault on Florida early Sunday with the storm’s northern eye-wall reaching the lower Florida Keys as a powerful Category 4 storm.
Irma lashed the area with maximum sustained winds near 130 mph, and the US National Hurricane Center said it was expected to remain a powerful storm as it moved through the Florida Keys and near the state’s west coast.
As of 7:00a EDT Sunday, the hurricane was centered about 15 miles south-southeast of Key West, Florida, and was moving northwest at 8 mph.
The Key West International Airport measured sustained winds of 50 mph with a gust of up to 70 mph, according to the hurricane center.
Tens of thousands of people huddling in shelters watched for updates as the storm swung to the west, now potentially sparing Tampa as well Miami the catastrophic head-on blow forecasters had been warning about for days.
Zoos and conservation centers in South Florida moved their animals including howler monkeys, dingoes and turtles to safety as Hurricane Irma looks on track to strike Sunday.
At the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society in West Palm Beach, workers began moving smaller animals into facilities that doubled as hurricane shelters Wednesday morning, said its communications director.
“We are prepared for the worst and hopeful for the best,” she said. “We are preparing for a Category 5 to make direct impact with our zoo.”
The zoo’s tiger, jaguar, bear and Komodo dragon populations would be staying put, she said, because their habitats already double as hurricane shelters.
“They will be locked inside of those shelters before the storm comes,” she said, adding that the zoo’s six-person storm team would monitor Irma from the Animal Care Center, the facility’s largest hurricane shelter.
“That is our command center,” she said, adding, “also our surgery and triage center.”
The zoo has more than 150 animals, 30% of which had been relocated by Thursday evening, she said. Among them were birds and smaller mammals.
The zoo has about 10 days of food for most animals, with about a month’s worth for larger animals. The zoo had also made arrangements to get additional food after the storm passes.
Workers boarded up windows and put hurricane-proof shutters and glass in place throughout the 23-acre facility.
In a statement Wednesday, the Miami Zoo said it would not evacuate animals “since hurricanes can change direction at the last minute, and you run the risk of evacuating to a more dangerous location.”
“The stress of moving the animals can be more dangerous than riding out the storm,” the zoo said.
Animals considered more dangerous will be kept in secure houses made of concrete, the statement said, adding that such animals survived the devastating Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago unharmed.
Governor rick Scott activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.
In the Orlando area, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World all closed Saturday. The Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando airports shut down.
Governor Rick Scott Sunday asked the nation for prayers as Hurricane Irma hit the Florida Keys.
Facilities in the area will also work together to help one another after the storm.
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