Tampa, Fla. -- More than 10,000 animals had to be left behind, as a massive wildfire quickly approached the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg early Tuesday.
Fortunately, flames managed to stay away from the tourist attraction and the animals that live there.
But a lot of people on social media were critical of the Ripley’s Aquarium staff, questioning whether they had an adequate emergency plan in place, and why they waited until the last minute to do something.
Others were more sympathetic to the staff, recognizing the speed with which the flames spread, and placing human life above the animals.
Still, it makes you wonder what would happen if we had a major natural disaster here?
In the concrete jungle of Tampa’s Channelside, wildfire is not the issue.
Instead, at the Florida Aquarium they're more concerned about a different type of natural disaster. A hurricane.
“The staff and the people take care of everything,” said Casey Coy, the aquarium's VP of operations, assuring us there is a plan in place.
During a behind-the-scenes tour, Coy showed us just how prepared they are. What they can do, and what they can't , for the 20,000-plus plants and animals that live at the aquarium.
“The iconic wetland dome, the glass, is rated for a Category Three storm in a hurricane. So that's sort of our line of demarcation,” said Coy.
Up to a Category Three, Coy says everything stays put.
But beyond that, the plan changes drastically.
The terrestrials -- mammals, reptiles, and waterfowl -- all get trucked out to other zoos or aquariums with which they have mutual aid agreements – located outside of the danger zone.
As for fish, the move is too traumatic. So all of them, even the big ones, stay no matter what.
“In fact, aquatic animals it's better to keep them in their exhibits than it is to put them through the stress of relocating them and moving them,” said Coy.
To try to keep what stays behind alive and keep the systems running, a small specialized team will ride out a hurricane, even a major one at the aquarium.
“An electrician and a plumber are really important in the aquarium business,” said Coy, “As well as a veterinary staff, animal health staff.”
They also need someone in food services to ride out the storm to feed the humans.
The systems that will sustain them is located on a huge outside deck.
Coy showed us a series of dozens of pumps, filters and tanks capable of moving 1 million gallons of seawater.
All of it elevated, he says, “so that if we have storm surge from hurricane we're up fairly high here.”
And the power plant that keeps it all going?
“Totally automated,” said Coy. “So, the building from an aquatic standpoint runs itself. You can do that for up to seven days.”
Making sure that all of this works in case of an emergency is no accident either, said Coy. The aquarium holds several practice drills, even when visitors are present, throughout the year.
The Florida Aquarium says it brings in 1,000,000 gallons of fresh sea water from the Gulf of Mexico every other month using the holding area of a huge tanker.
Those generators and automated filters then keep it all moving for the marine life.
Including, they hope, during a major storm.