Saturday, September 6, 2008

DRC Prepared for Hurricane Ike

One of the most frequently asked questions we hear is, "How do you prepare for a hurricane?"

Since Hurricane Ike is churning in our general direction, we think this is an appropriate time to blog on this topic. First, we'd like to assure everyone that DRC has a detailed, comprehensive hurricane preparedness plan that addresses the many issues we face as a facility. Senior management has monitored the progress of several storms -- Hanna, Ike and Josephine -- all week and our preliminary preparation began a few days ago.

As you can imagine, hurricane preparation is an enormous process that requires a great deal of time, plus the hard work and team effort of everyone on staff. Each of us knows what to do to protect our own areas, and when finished, how to help other departments.

Yesterday, as soon as we received word that the Monroe County officials (All of the Keys are in Monroe County) had ordered a mandatory visitor evacuation to begin this morning, DRC officially closed to the public so that staff could secure our offices, the buildings, the grounds and, of course, the many animals in our family.

We removed and secured items that could blow loose in a storm: benches, dock steps, trash receptacles, picnic tables, sign frames -- you name it! Boats, vehicles -- even the "lunch truck" -- were locked up tight and moved away from the lagoons to a safer area.

As if high winds aren't enough of a threat, offices located on the ground floor must also prepare for the possibility of flooding. Computers and other equipment, important paperwork, and other items were moved to "higher ground", i.e. upper level buildings. Those of us already on the second floor also packed important files and smaller items into plastic tubs and covered our computers, printers, telephones and other electronic equipment with plastic bags -- just in case excessive wind and rainfall causes the roofs to leak.

Every window and door at the facility has strong shutters that we locked tight in place.

Hurricane Wilma's visit in 2005 taught us a valuable -- and costly -- lesson. The storm surge reached between 7 to 10 feet and devastated DRC with horrible flooding. We lost so much in terms of equipment, vehicles, docks, platforms and more. Some buildings had to be completely gutted and rebuilt from the inside. (Some buildings remain unusable.) We experienced problems with our telephone and computer systems for months.

When we rebuilt, we took the lesson to heart and made adjustments. For example, in the Animal Care and Training office on the ground floor nearest the dolphin lagoons, all of the power sockets and plugs for computers are located high up on the wall. We built an elevated concrete "hub" bunker to house the communications center. Generators for emergency power are located on elevated platforms, too.

To protect the precious food supply for our animals, we constructed the new fish freezer in solid, thick concrete and elevated it several feet above the ground.

The tropical birds were moved from the outdoor aviary into individual wire cages and relocated to a secure building. Although all of the cats are accustomed to roaming around outside, for the duration of the storm threat, they've also been moved inside.

As you know, we can't move the dolphins, but we prepare them as best we can. Executive Vice President/Co-Founder Mandy Rodriguez leads a skilled crew of people that stays at DRC during the storms, hunkering down in a secure building. As the storm approaches, the dolphins receive full meals of fish and, if they need it, some extra water, to take them through the event. As soon as the storm passes and it's safe for people to go outside, the crew will go out to the lagoons to check on the pod and feed them again.

In a worst case scenario, if the surge again topped or destroyed the fences, and the dolphins opted to go out to deeper water, we'd need to find them if they didn't return after the event. Most of our dolphins were born at DRC, or have lived most of their lives here or at another facility. Accustomed to human care, they lack adequate survival skills. Over the years we've developed helpful measures that we employ during hurricanes.

We've created special bands that they wear around their peduncles. These are constructed of a soft, stretchy wetsuit-like material in very bright colors with break-away fasteners. The bands are marked with DRC contact information. If for any reason the dolphins become lost and can't find their way home, we believe they will eventually seek out humans. The bright peduncle bands would immediately signify that these are special dolphins and help us reconnect with them.

The pod is also trained to respond to a recall device. Called a pinger, this device sends out a unique click sound that transmits one to two miles in the ocean. Every DRC dolphins knows that when they hear that sound, they should follow it back to its source. We practice this drill in the lagoons a few times a week. The dolphins rush to the pingers and receive an enthusiastic welcome and a delicious fish reward.

We've also been developing a hurricane pack that can be attached to the dorsal fin with some comfortable suction cups. A radio transmitter can be connected to the pack that would transmit a signal each time the dorsal broke the surface of the water when the dolphin rises to breathe. By tracking the signal, we could reunite with our beloved dolphins.

Senior management will continue to meet regularly in person or by phone during the storm. We know that we have done everything possible to secure DRC. Everyone except for the stay-behind crew needs to perform their own preparations at their homes. A mandatory evacuation for Florida Keys residents goes into effect in phases beginning Sunday morning.

Most of us will leave and take refuge elsewhere in Florida where Hurricane Ike, hopefully, won't visit. We'll wait, watch the hurricane reports, and pray that the storm doesn't deliver a crushing blow to our islands. Please think good thoughts for everyone at Dolphin Research Center -- footed, finned, furred, or flippered -- and for everyone who lives in the projected path of Hurricane Ike.

As soon as possible after the storm, we'll find out from the stay-behind crew how DRC fared. When we know, we'll post the information on the blog.


Unknown said...

Good luck to you, the storm sounds frightening, but it looks like you're all prepared. Also sounds like a lot has changed since I visited for teen dolphinlab back in 2000.

A quick question: when do you put on the peduncle bands: for all storms, or just those with a projected high storm surge?

Thinking of you and all the dolphin friends! I'm glad I found this blog.

andrea-maria said...

prayers and good thoughts go out to all staff and animals of DRC! Know that we're praying that you all remain safe and ride this storm out with as little damage as possible.

mn_me said...

Be safe and take care! Your hard work and efforts to take care everyone and everything at DRC are much appreciated.

You're in my thoughts and prayers through this hurricane season

Addie Moe

The DRC Family said...

Erika, that's a great question about the peduncle bands and there's no easy answer. A lot of different variables go into the decision. Plus, conditions can change rather quickly. Safe to say that senior management monitors every storm's development and progress constantly.

We don't ask the dolphins to wear their peduncle bands all the time throughout the year, but we ask them to practice wearing them for limited periods regularly so that they remain familiar.

The bands themselves are easy to put on, so whenever senior management determines it's time, the stay-behind crew can go out to the lagoons and ask the dolphins to wear them. They can also remove them just as easily when the storm's threat has passed.