What you need to know about emergency shelters


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Officials tasked with opening and managing shelters across Northeast Florida are closely watching the forecast for Tropical Storm Erika.

County emergency management open shelters if evacuations of coastal residents and those in flood zones are needed. In Jacksonville, the American Red Cross manages the shelters. Most suburban counties manage their own.

"Shelters are a very important part of our evacuation plan," said Linda Stoughton, director of St. Johns County Emergency Management.

She said the shelters are ready to be activated if need be, and residents need to be ready, too, in case they need to use one.

RELATED: Do you live in an evacuation zone? |
ONLINE: Duval County shelters | St. Johns County shelters

"Make sure that they bring some basic supplies -- some bottled water, their favorite foods, entertainment, especially if they have children, maybe some books, their iPad, cellphone chargers, their medication," Stoughton said.

But Stoughton said not to bring large pieces of furniture or tents, because there's not enough space.

"Travel light. Bring your bedding, because at the general shelters we are asking you to bring your own cot, bring your own blanket, pillow, those type of things," Stoughton said.

That's a message echoed by Evelyn Penney with the American Red Cross.

There's only going to enough room for whatever you're sleeping on, whether it's a cot, air mattress or sleeping bag. There's also enough room to put a bag a personal item.

The Red Cross provides some cots, but not enough if a large number of shelters are needed. Few other counties have cots available. 

Peter Litsky, of Army Navy Outdoors, said camping cots aren't expensive and don't take up much room to store in a closet.

"You can put a pad on there but, it soft and comfortable just the way it is," Litsky said.

The shelter will provide space for medications, so make sure to bring those.

"When they come in, they tell the registration desk what their needs are, and they will be referred to the nurse to take care of their medications," Penney said.

In Duval and St. Johns counties, there are three types of shelters: general shelters, shelters for people with special needs and shelters that accept pets.

You have to register for a special-needs shelter or pet shelter beforehand.

"These shelters are all shelters that we learned about because of Hurricane Katrina," said Aurora Sanks from the American Red Cross. "People will take their animals and not want to leave them."

People sheltering with their pets will need to keep them in a cage, which can be purchased from pet stores, Target or Walmart. Sizes and prices range from $35 to $250.

"The length and the height of the animal is the most important," said Gary Lodes of Pet Supermarket. "As long as the animal can fit in there and turn around, that is the proper size."

Owners must also provide food for their pets.

Even with Erika a thousand miles away, emergency management officials say residents need to think about their storm plan now:

  • Put together a bag of what you might bring.
  • Once it is announce where shelters will open, figure out which is closest to you.
  • Determine how you would get there.

And the Red Cross wants people to know they do not check identification. They want people who are undocumented to know shelters are a safe place to come in an emergency. But know that firearms and alcohol are not permitted in shelters.