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December 19, 2011

Ready, Set, Evacuate: Animal Disaster Planning Undergoes a Revolution

Hurricane Katrina showed that needs of animals in disasters affect people

All Animals magazine

  • Carol Guzy

by Michael Sharp

For so long, the message had been simply this: If you’re forced to evacuate your home, leave your pets in the bathroom with enough food and water to last three days.

“That’s what I grew up thinking,” says Laura Bevan, HSUS Southern region director. “You know, the magical bathroom.”

But in August 1992, Hurricane Andrew quickly changed that thinking.

Bevan remembers one man who kept returning to look for his cats after his South Florida community was leveled. “He said, ‘They told us if we put our animals in the bathroom, they’d be safe. And when I come back, there’s not a house; there’s not a bathroom; there’s nothing.’ ”

Today, Hurricane Andrew still stands as a watershed moment. It was the first time The HSUS set up a temporary pet shelter in the wake of a disaster, and it inspired new messaging to encourage the state’s residents to take their pets when they evacuate. It also spotlighted holes in government response plans and helped lead to the creation of a statewide volunteer animal response network.

In 2005, another epic disaster elevated these issues to a national level: When the New Orleans levees gave way to the floods wrought by Hurricane Katrina, a heartbroken country watched as people clung to rooftops and floating refrigerators alongside their pets, waving desperately for help. As relief agencies became overwhelmed, so too did animal protection organizations struggling to save pets left behind, many by families forced to evacuate without them.

In the end, more than 10,000 animals came through emergency shelters set up by The HSUS, the Louisiana SPCA, and scores of other groups and advocates. The massive effort brought unprecedented attention to the human-animal bond and launched an HSUS capacity-building effort that now enables the Animal Rescue Team to help animals in distress at a moment’s notice.

“I think Katrina was really a tipping point, in terms of highlighting the needs of animals in disasters and showing that the animal needs affect the people,” says Betsy McFarland, HSUS vice president for companion animals. She remembers taking calls from flood victims stuck on their rooftops, wondering if the helicopters overhead would allow their dogs on board too.

A year later, the HSUS-backed Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act addressed the dangers posed by a dearth of pet-friendly evacuation services and shelters. The law mandated that state and local agencies include pet owners in disaster plans in order to receive federal funds.

Since then, many more doors have been opened to animals. Joanne Bourbeau, HSUS Northeastern region director, tells the story of a couple at a Red Cross shelter after Hurricane Irene. They’d brought their cat, but as they told a National Guard member, they weren’t able to grab their pet rat before evacuating.

“The next morning, she woke up,” Bourbeau says, “and her rat was in his little cage next to her cot.”

Personal preparation is now top of mind as well. As Hurricane Irene bore down, the Weather Channel welcomed HSUS Georgia state director Jessica DuBois to its Atlanta studios for two live interviews. “The No. 1 thing I wanted to convey was to plan and to prepare and always take your pets with you,” DuBois says. “Because if it’s not safe for you, it’s not safe for your pets.”

A day later, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addressed a press conference as Irene set her sights on his state.

“Certainly, if you’re traveling to be with a relative or a friend or a coworker,” he said, “bring your pets with you.”

It was a far cry from: Leave them in the bathroom with three days of food.

Read more from this issue of All Animals »

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