It’s 2 in the morning and you awake to an unfamiliar buzz from your phone. It’s an emergency alert—there’s flash flooding in your area and you need to evacuate, now. Your kid is asleep down the hall. Your cat’s under the bed in her favorite nighttime hiding spot. Your dog is blinking at you from the foot of the bed. What do you do?
When the call comes to evacuate—especially when it’s unexpected—many people’s first reaction is panic. Fear and stress are natural, but they can stop you from thinking clearly. HSUS disaster response manager Diane Robinson experienced it firsthand years ago, when a fire sparked up near her then-home in Colorado.
Robinson knew what to do—she’s had years of professional experience planning for disasters—so she kept a bag of supplies by the door while she monitored the fire’s spread. Even though she’s an expert, she still found the experience stressful. “I’m thinking through all of the things that I tell everybody to do, but it’s different when it’s you,” she says.
Though Robinson didn’t end up evacuating, the experience reminded her how necessary it is to have a plan in place for disasters. Here’s what to consider.
PACK SUPPLIES. Fill a go-bag with necessary supplies for every family member—including pets. Robinson recommends refreshing the bag at least once a year; June 1—the start of hurricane season—is a good time to replace expired food and medicine. Here’s what to pack:
- Food and water for at least five days, plus bowls and a manual can opener, if needed.
- Medications, medical records, veterinarian contact information and a first-aid kit.
- An up-to-date photo of you with your pets in case you get separated.
- A log of your pets’ feeding and medication schedules.
- Pet waste bags, a litter box, litter and a litter scoop, if needed.
- Leashes, harnesses and secure carriers for each pet. Make sure your animals can stand up, turn around and lie down comfortably.
- A favorite toy or familiar blanket to provide comfort.
Make sure you have sturdy and spacious carriers for each animal. Containing your pets can prevent them from bolting. “Even if it’s just a single house fire, you have alarms going off, your animals are going to be stressed and panic. And in disasters they don’t act normal,” says Robinson, adding that she’s heard of countless pets who jumped from the car as their families evacuated. Make sure your pets wear collars with your phone number at all times, and if they’re microchipped, ensure that the associated contact information is up to date.
GIVE RESPONDERS A CLUE. “There’s a lot of effort from firefighters and folks in emergency services to save animals,” says Robinson. Make it easier for them by placing a sticker on each door that indicates how many pets you have, in case something happens when you’re not home. Be sure to update the stickers when you bring someone new into the family or say goodbye.
KNOW WHERE YOU’RE GOING. Robinson recommends planning where you’ll stay if you need to leave. Research pet-friendly hotels, and make reservations swiftly if you’re ordered to evacuate. Don’t assume you can rely on government-run emergency shelters, especially in the era of COVID-19. Robinson notes that disaster response agencies are rethinking their protocols to account for social distancing, given the typically crowded nature of emergency shelters. Think creatively: Do you have relatives or friends who’d take in your family temporarily, including all of your pets? Could you reserve a spot at a campground and set up a tent or bring a travel trailer?
IDENTIFY A BACKUP. The COVID-19 crisis revealed a missing element in many people’s disaster plans: How do you prepare for a pandemic? If you live with someone, you probably assume they’ll care for the family pet if you fall ill. But the global health crisis led to a new question, says Robinson: “If your whole household is sick and in the hospital, then who’s going to take care of your pets?” Although some animal shelters might be able to facilitate temporary foster care in the years ahead, don’t assume you can rely on external agencies. Find a friend, neighbor or relative willing to temporarily care for your animals if possible.
Although the pandemic forced individuals and the sheltering industry to reevaluate disaster preparedness plans, the most basic advice—be prepared—remains the same. Make a plan for both natural disasters and illness, and make sure everyone in the household knows what it is. Assume you’ll need to be self-sufficient; Robinson points out that in communitywide disasters, emergency responders are stretched thin and might not be able to respond immediately. Evacuate as soon as you’re told, and always remember that if it isn’t safe for you, it isn’t safe for your pets.
Use our checklist to assemble an emergency kit for yourself and ALL your pets. During natural disasters, creating an emergency plan can be a lifesaver.