A scrawled note was stuck to the door of the clinic. “All animals left here have died,” it said. “We have buried them for you. I have no way of expressing my grief.” The note was signed by the vet whose clinic was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
That note is a sad reminder that being prepared for a disaster is key to surviving storms, fires, floods, earthquakes, and whatever else might come crashing down upon us—and our animals.
That’s why Cynthia Faux says, “If I have 15 minutes to evacuate in front of a fast-moving fire, I don’t want to spend 10 of those looking for my pet carriers.” Faux, a clinical assistant professor in Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has two cats, a dog, two birds, and a 30-inch-long lungfish. “During fire season, those carriers stay in my living room.”
Faux teaches a two-week-long summer intensive evacuation preparedness course for fourth-year veterinary medicine students. The course immerses students in the intricacies of disaster management, including which local, state, and federal agencies to coordinate with, how to develop plans for moving livestock, and what animal health factors to consider when rendering aid to veterinary clinics in the path of a disaster.
As Faux says, “If your veterinary practice is in the path of a flood or a fire, whether you like it or not, you have to deal with it.” The idea of the course, she adds, “is to prepare veterinarians, whether they’re going to actively participate in disaster management or they just want to know in case it happens to them.”
Emergency managers, as well as psychologists who study crisis communications and management, admit that there’s no way to get 100 percent of people to leave a disaster area. One reason for that is that many people simply refuse to leave without their pets.
And even if some try to leave with their pets, they aren’t always allowed to do so. One case, in particular, helped move American disaster planners to be more inclusive of animals.
In the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, a young boy was sheltering at the Superdome. He was to be evacuated to a more permanent facility in Houston. As he was boarding a bus to Texas, his dog was taken out of his arms by a police officer. Distressed, the boy called out to his dog, “Snowball!”, and then crumpled to the ground in despair. Caught in a series of photos, the story went viral—and helped inspire a new law.
More than a year later, in October 2006, Congress passed the PETS Act, which mandates that disaster preparedness plans include provisions for pets. Implementation of the law has been spotty, though, with only 20 states in compliance. Washington state is one of them. Sadly, Snowball and her boy were never reunited.
Still, according to a 2011 ASPCA poll, at least 30 percent of people in the South said they wouldn’t know what to do with their pets if forced to evacuate. Now, though, many disaster management agencies are creating agreements with fairgrounds, motels, mass transit carriers, and other businesses to allow animals in emergency situations.
Faux was in Louisiana in the aftermath of Katrina as part of a team of vets who volunteer to help animals in disasters. She was already an experienced disaster-aid vet, having worked in New York after 9/11, where she cared for search and rescue dogs.
Dogs worked in rubble piles with potential for paw-pad injury. Having vets on site meant that if the dogs had problems, they could get help right away. While dogs had very few problems, the site of the Twin Towers collapse was very dirty, so on-site vets washed a lot of eyes and ears, for which handlers were grateful, according to numerous accounts celebrating the canine heroes.
One of Faux’s students, Corrie Hines ’18 DVM, says pet owners need to have a bug-out bag ready to go. Animal owners need to have “vaccination records, food for a week, a can opener, ID tags, water and water bowls, a spare litter box,” and whatever else a pet might need for a week-long evacuation. For horse owners, “own a trailer or have a partner nearby who does. Have friends or a network of people in nearby counties who will let you leave their animals with them.
“Have a plan,” Hines insists. A veteran wildlife rehabilitator who has cleaned birds after oil spills, Hines adds, “Know that something bad can happen, so be prepared. Just opening your pasture gates and hoping your horses are going to be OK? That’s not a plan. They can get hurt. They can hurt others.”
Knowing where your local fairground is might just save your animal’s life, especially in the Pacific Northwest where fire is a major concern.
Hines and her fellow students worked with the disaster management team in Chelan County, in north central Washington. Wenatchee is home to a large number of horse lovers and their animals, so having a way of moving large animals to safety is important to Stan Smoke, Chelan County’s emergency management specialist.
A former fire chief, Smoke says having defensible space around your home, barn, or stable is an important part of a preparedness plan. Sandy Duffy, Smoke’s counterpart in Grant County, where Faux and her students have also worked, concurs.
“Everybody cramming into a school parking lot, looking for their children—that’s probably not the best way to go about trying to find a child.”
Duffy says that whether its large animals or small children, knowing the plan is critical to a safe evacuation.