How Do Zoos Prepare for Hurricanes?

penguins return to the Audubon Aquarium after Hurricane Katrina
Rescued penguins return to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans in May 2006 after an 8-month refuge in California due to Hurricane Katrina. Mario Tama/Getty Images

When hurricanes are in the forecast, residents in the area often have to decide whether to board up and evacuate or stay and weather the storm.

But zoos and aquariums don't have that option. At least a handful of employees have to hunker down alongside the animals to make sure they're cared for when the bad weather hits.

When Hurricane Irma threatened Florida, Zoo Miami had a plan in place. Responding to many concerned inquiries, the zoo posted on its Facebook page:

"We don't evacuate our animals since hurricanes can change direction at the last minute and you run the risk of evacuating to a more dangerous location. Furthermore, the stress of moving the animals can be more dangerous than riding out the storm. The animals that are considered dangerous will stay in their secure night houses, which are made of poured concrete and welded metal. These animals survived [Hurricane] Andrew without injuries. We've loaded up on additional food and water, our generators have been tested and ready to go. In addition, we've stored all cycles and removed debris."

Learning from the past

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which represents more than 230 facilities in the U.S. and overseas, requires its members to have an emergency plan in place for disasters like hurricanes, and they must hold at least one disaster prep drill a year, according to Rob Vernon, AZA's senior vice president of communications and marketing.

Interest in preparedness became a priority after hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005, which closed zoos in Louisiana and Florida. During Hurricane Katrina, most of the 10,000 fish in the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas died when the facility lost power, reports the conservation site Mongabay. Some animals, including sea otters and penguins, survived the storm and were taken to other facilities for temporary housing.

“We found that zoos play many roles in society — conservation, education, science,” Dr. Jeleen Briscoe, USDA’s avian specialist, told AZA's Connect magazine. “They’re cultural icons. They have a pretty big economic impact on their communities. They have unique facilities and unique emergency management needs.”

In addition, Briscoe pointed out that zoos and aquariums have “animals that cannot be replaced, that can’t have monetary values placed on them and that may be endangered species."

Preparing for the worst

According to NPR's research, most zoo disaster plans have similar basics. Employees remove signs, tarps and loose debris that could go flying and cause damage during the storms. Generators and gas tanks are prepared for use. Food and other vital supplies are stockpiled for animals and for the human staff that will stay to care for them.

In Houston, 15 staff members stayed at the zoo for the first night of Hurricane Harvey.

"We were sleeping here at the zoo, on cots or on the floor," Lee Ehmke, CEO of the Houston Zoo told NPR. "We prepared food so everyone was fed ... There was a lot of radio and Internet communication to make sure the right diets were given to the animals."

Most of the animals ride out the storm in their usual locations, although Zoo Miami (then Miami MetroZoo) famously housed flamingos in public restrooms several times to weather a couple of hurricanes.

Other zoos often pitch in, either by taking in stranded animals or by offering supplies. Just days after Harvey, several zoos sent supplies into the Houston area to assist facilities heavily impacted by the storm, including the Downtown Aquarium and the Texas Zoo in Victoria.

"The facilities that are part of the AZA community are incredible and are always willing to jump in and help at a moment’s notice when disaster hits," Vernon says. "We saw that with Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, and I suspect we’ll see it again with Hurricane Irma in Florida."