By Ernest Scheyder
WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) - From turtles to fish, the denizens of two North Carolina aquariums will be facing Hurricane Florence alone after their handlers were forced to leave under mandatory evacuation orders.
Florence, a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale and still growing, is expected to strike North Carolina late Thursday or early Friday, potentially bringing deadly high seas and catastrophic flooding.
Animal handlers at two of the state's three major aquariums, located on the vulnerable Outer Banks barrier islands and other threatened coastal areas, had no choice but to leave on Wednesday after making last-minute preparations.
"The animals are part of our family," said Danielle Bolton, spokeswoman for the Pine Knoll Shores aquarium, which closed to the public on Tuesday. "It is very emotional having to close and not know exactly what’s going to happen.”
The animals "got fed as much as they could the last few days,” Bolton said.
At the other two aquariums, North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, some 20 miles south of Wilmington, and on Roanoke Island, employees also did everything they could to protect the various sea creatures.
"(The handlers) are all very concerned about what will happen and what could happen,” said Robin Nalepa, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Aquarium, which is home mostly to fish, sharks, reptiles and sea turtles.
“Obviously, we sit right on the coast, but part of the building has been there for 40 years, since 1976,” she said.
Before leaving, employees completed an extensive checklist that included preparing animal habitats as best they could for the incoming storm, Nalepa said. Some animals were moved to safer parts of the building, water levels were topped off and generators were left running to oxygenate the water, she said.
"It’s not only personally distressing that there’s a (Category 3) hurricane that we’re all trying to prepare for personally, but that it could impact the animals that they care for on a daily basis. It can really take a toll,” she added.
Bolton of Pine Knoll Shores noted that some sea creatures are more resilient than others.
"Sharks can go two to three weeks without eating. However, we don’t normally let them go that long in the aquarium," Bolton said. "We might find one or two of the smaller fish missing. We hope that’s not gonna happen.”
Officials at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island decided to keep a crew of four at the facility during the storm, even though area residents had been ordered to evacuate, spokesman Brian Postelle said.
"The determination was made that it was a reasonable call for them to stay at the aquarium,” Postelle said by telephone. "The aquarium itself is a very strong building."
The center of Florence was forecast to draw close to the North Carolina coast on Friday afternoon - perhaps lingering just offshore - then drift southwest along the shoreline before turning inland on Saturday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
(This version of the story fixes number of evacuated aquariums in first and third paragraphs to two, not three; in paragraphs 13-14 adds comments to show that some crew remain at Roanoke Island aquarium)
(Additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Leslie Adler)