Katrina's Lesson Learned: Animals No Longer Excluded from Storm Evacuations

Reports of the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria dominated the media this past September. In the midst of all that, particularly notable were the scenes of residents being hauled up by helicopters, trudging through waist-high water, or floating down rivers that once were streets—while clutching their companion animals. What a difference a few years and a federal law have made.

At the end of August 2005, Hurricane Katrina led to overwhelming damage in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans, and nearly 2,000 people died across five states. Rescue efforts were intense and frantic during the storm. However, pets generally were not included in those operations, and many people refused to leave them behind, thus putting themselves in danger. Nearly 50 percent of those who chose to stay put during Katrina did so because they did not want to leave their pets. Others, believing they would be back in a few days, left their animals locked inside without enough food or water. Some survived, but many succumbed to starvation.

It is difficult to know the exact numbers, but the lack of preparation for Katrina appears to have resulted in the stranding of between 100,000 and 250,000 pets and the deaths of between 70,000 and 150,000. Pictures of abandoned pets quivering on rooftops, hiding in attics, or swimming in infested waters spread across social media. The country was particularly moved by the image of a young boy crying hysterically as his small white dog was ripped from his arms. Pets weren’t permitted on the bus he was boarding and the boy’s parents made the wrenching decision to leave their beloved dog behind.

Even within clouds so dark and gray, there was a silver lining: No one wanted to see pets suffer again as they did during Katrina. Something had to change. So Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA) and Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) introduced the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act in September 2005. With overwhelming support, it became law in October 2006 (PL 109-308). The PETS Act amended the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to require that state disaster preparedness and evacuation plans address the needs of people with pets and service animals. It also authorized the use of federal funds for pet-friendly emergency shelters when needed. States must adhere to these rules in order to receive funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Under these new guidelines, more than 30 states enacted statutory instructions for the evacuation, rescue, and recovery of pets during a disaster. Although each state’s mandates are different, most address the following key issues: animal care and response teams, evacuation shelters, and identification of rescued animals. There are even a few states that extend the plan beyond companion animals to include livestock, zoo animals, and wildlife.

After the PETS Act became law, Louisiana took significant steps to ensure future disasters would not be so catastrophic for animals and their owners. The Louisiana Veterinary Medical Association organized a response team of volunteers to help during a crisis. The state government arranged for pet transportation and shelters, and established guidelines for identification in the event of an emergency. When Hurricane Gustav made landfall in September 2008 and New Orleans was evacuated, animals were among the top priorities. Hundreds of miles from the disaster area, shelters were erected at fairgrounds and elsewhere. The Red Cross loosened its policy on pets and even set up a temporary refuge for pet owners near the shelters.

More recently, the new law’s value was underscored during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which caused major damage and displacement in Texas and Florida, respectively. The statute in Texas covering emergency protocols was amended in 2009 to include animal care. It required the government to develop plans for the humane evacuation, transport, and temporary sheltering of pets and service animals in a disaster. Animal rescue groups enhanced their disaster divisions by increasing water rescue resources and offering specialized water training.

Before Harvey arrived, organizations around the country took in shelter pets from the storm area to make room for the displaced pets to come. During evacuation efforts, it was common to see pictures of rescued people sitting in boats with wet dogs in their arms. Cats and dogs weren’t the only ones saved; pigs, cows, and horses were also helped to safety.

During Harvey, people moved quickly and efficiently, but not everything worked flawlessly. At first, the Red Cross, which was operating one of the largest evacuation shelters, at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center, wouldn’t admit animals, so the evacuees sat in the rain with their pets. After a public outcry and intervention by a local official, the Red Cross changed its mind and set up a separate section within the center for evacuees with pets. When emergency shelters did not take in animals, there were separate areas or off-site housing for them, with pets and owners being assigned identification numbers to facilitate reuniting them later. Even with all these efforts, however, thousands of animals were thought to be displaced or missing. After the hurricane subsided, shelters opened up hubs to reunite displaced pets with their owners.

Florida amended its disaster plan in 2006 to require that pets be included in evacuation strategies during an emergency. Pet-friendly shelters were established ahead of time, and animals were preemptively evacuated before Irma hit. Some locations filled up before the storm, but other arrangements were quickly made. Some farm animals were housed in county jails after inmates were evacuated. Some of the more fragile zoo animals were placed in bunkers while many of the large animals were housed in their sleeping quarters. Zoo keepers argued that moving them would have caused significant stress, which could be fatal to some.

The country has taken steps in the right direction, but issues remain. To close a gap that still exists in emergency preparedness, US Representatives Dina Titus (D-NV) and Dan Donovan (R-NY) have reintroduced the Animal Emergency Planning Act (HR 3792). This bill would ensure that commercial operations such as research institutions, zoos, breeding facilities, and other entities licensed or registered under the Animal Welfare Act have disaster plans in place that adequately provide for evacuating and caring for their animals.

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