By Dr. Dick Green, Senior Director of Disaster Response for ASPCA Field Investigations and Response When Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana coast in 2004, I was directing disaster relief efforts for the American Humane Association. We deployed immediately to the area and were shocked by the widespread devastation and its tragic impact on both people and pets. Many animals were in great danger, injured, and separated from their owners.
We were asked by the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LASPCA) to assist in setting up emergency shelters at the Lamar-Dixon Exposition Center in Gonzales, LA., and conducted water rescues throughout New Orleans. In all, we spent 47 days in the area, including animal search and rescue efforts following Hurricane Rita, which struck less than a month after Katrina.
What made our efforts more challenging was the destruction and flooding of local animal organizations, including the LASPCA, which pet owners would normally rely on for help with their animals. Day after day, we worked alongside LASPCA and assisted them with animal needs as our emergency facilities were the only available shelters for displaced and homeless animals across four parishes.
One of my most vivid memories from that time was discovering a new list of some 1,300 requests for rescue in New Orleans that had not yet been addressed. We moved our entire operation to Delgado Community College and with the support of the National Guard, the Louisiana State Animal Rescue Team, the US Public Health Service, and US Army veterinarians, we made it through the entire list in four days. The work was exhausting, but the intense dedication on display to help each of those vulnerable animals was inspiring, and an experience I'll never forget.
Throughout those nearly seven weeks in New Orleans, dozens of animal rescue professionals and volunteers jumped in - often literally - to save as many lives as we could. But our efforts also revealed many weaknesses in the way we go about animal rescue and protection at both the local and national level. Motivated by those limitations, and the danger they pose in future disasters, we've made some important improvements since then.
On the legislative side, two Acts passed by Congress - the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act and the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act - added pets to existing federal guidelines for disaster planning and designated FEMA as the lead agency for pets in federally declared disasters, respectively. This rightfully elevated the imperative of rescuing pets during emergencies.
Another proposed measure, the Animal Emergency Planning Act, was recently introduced in July. It would require businesses that house pets - including pet breeders, research facilities, animal carriers and animal handlers - to develop detailed contingency plans for animal care in cases of emergency.
Within the rescue community, two significant coalitions were formed within a year of Katrina: the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition (NARSC) and the National Alliance of State Animal and Agricultural Emergency Programs (NASAAEP). Collectively, these two alliances have instilled and encouraged necessary collaboration, cooperation, and communication between welfare organizations and state agencies responsible for animals in disaster.
When you're saving lives in disasters of this magnitude, no organization can handle the needs alone - working together is crucial. Now we have processes and tools in place to help us work together more quickly and effectively.
But even with our best efforts, the greatest opportunity to help animals survive disasters is for owners to prepare for them in advance. All too often we encounter owners putting their own lives in danger to stay with their pets because they haven't made arrangements and then don't want to leave their companions behind.
Our research shows that 44 percent of the people who chose to ride out Hurricane Katrina did so because they couldn't evacuate with their pets. Across the country, 35 percent of the people we polled said they don't have a disaster plan in place, 19 percent said they have no clue what they'd do, and 42 percent said they wouldn't evacuate without their pets.
A few simple steps can make the difference between life and death in such an emergency:
- Make sure your pets are micro-chipped and wear collars and ID tags with current contact information.
- Keep current photos of your pets in your possession.
- Identify exit routes in your home, as well as the locations of local shelters, pet-friendly hotels and friends who can watch your animals if necessary.
- Put stickers on your windows to let rescuers know animals live there. Keep an emergency kit ready, including pet carriers, first aid items, canned food, bowls, bottled water, garbage bags, disinfectant, and blankets or bedding.
- Sign the Disaster Prep pledge to plan for your pet's safety in the event of a natural disaster.
The ASPCA also has a new free mobile app dedicated to helping owners prepare for disaster and find lost pets.
As long as there are natural disasters, pets will be in danger. Thanks to what we learned from Hurricane Katrina, we're more prepared than ever to respond, but my hope is always that we never have to be called in at all.