Katrina Disaster Illustrates Need for State Animal Emergency Preparedness Plans

Twenty-two days after Hurricane Katrina, veterinary professionals and students continue to help thousands of animals displaced by what has been described as the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history. Rescue workers, who arrived in Louisiana and Mississippi within days of the call for help, say Katrina set a new level for emergency preparedness and illustrates the need for states to implement animal disaster programs. There are about seven State Animal Response Teams (SART) in the United States or variations on that theme, according to SART professionals.

We have never before had all four Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMAT) on the ground before,” said Jim Hamilton, DVM, VMAT 3 commander. “We have never had this type of disaster before.” When he arrived in Mississippi, Hamilton said that more than 80 percent of the veterinary practices were “crippled in their ability to provide veterinary care to communities.” Two weeks later about 70 percent were operational to a certain extent, he said. “Clearly Katrina rewrote the rule book” on what veterinarians need in terms of emergency procedures, he added. “Instead of 60-member VMAT teams it needs to be 150,” he said. “We have a large cache of equipment but it needs to be four times that amount.”

In Mississippi and Louisiana, veterinary licenses have been temporarily waived for rescue workers who say that the Incident Command System, a federal program, has expedited efforts to treat, record data for, and reunite displaced animals with owners. Approximately 7,000 animals have been processed through five shelters in Louisiana as well as 2,000 in Mississippi, and some professionals expect the number to reach 10,000. Gulf Coast areas are now bracing for the ninth hurricane of the season named Hurricane Rita.

Along the Gulf Coast, displaced animals have presented with dehydration, emaciation and diarrhea, skin problems, lacerations from dog fights, trauma injuries from fallen trees and other conditions that require hospitalization, said professionals.

How to Help

Rescue coordinators are only accepting volunteers from organized groups such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and as of Sept. 20, 2005, more than 18,000 volunteers had signed up to help, said Eric Rayvid, ASPCA spokesperson.

“We are rich in veterinarians, and have had to turn people away,” said Brigid Elchos, DVM, agroterrorism coordinator and state public health veterinarian in Louisiana. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also issued statements urging people not to “self-deploy.”

In addition to tracking veterinary credentials for volunteers practicing in Mississippi and Louisiana, Elchos and her colleagues negotiate security clearance and explain how to process animals to expedite reunion with owners. In Alabama, the VMA is referring veterinarians who are interested in helping with rescue efforts to the Mississippi and Louisiana VMAs, and provides a venue for employing and housing veterinarians on its website.

Product donations have surpassed expectation and created logistical issues, said Larry Hawkins, public information officer for the Louisiana Animal Rescue and Recovery Incident Team. “We are up to our necks in dog and cat food,” he explained. “We have enough food to feed every dog and cat in Louisiana for the next 10 years.” All donations are appreciated, but Hawkins said that financial donations are most helpful now.

In Mississippi and Louisiana, animals are checked for microchips and photographed. Rescue workers are also implanting microchips in animals as a way to track them. In Mississippi, animals are then transferred to one of five shelters, according to whether they are owned animals, homeless, or have been relinquished because owners can no longer afford their care, Elchos said. Photographs will be posted on Petfinder.com in the near future, she said, and added, “Our goal is to have as many reunions as possible.” As of Sept. 16, 2005, Elchos had recorded more than 50 such events. Veterinary professionals can direct questions about how to find a lost pet to an Animal Emergency Response website that hosts information databases.

In Louisiana, all animals receive vaccinations and are treated for internal and external parasites unless they have traceable tags, Hawkins said. Any animal with a microchip, a collar, or that was dropped off at the shelter by an owner will remain in Louisiana for at least 30 days while other animals that cannot be identified will be shipped to other shelters across the United States. About 100 dogs are transferred to other states daily, Hawkins said. In Louisiana, owners have been asked to retrieve their animals by Oct. 1, 2005, he added.

An Organized Approach

The Incident Command System, a protocol for fire, police and other emergency teams, streamlined rescue efforts amid chaos, Elchos said. “Everyone speaks the same language. It has been heartwarming how everyone pulled together.”

Hawkins agreed. In Louisiana, the United States Department of Agriculture assumed a leadership role for rescue coordination efforts on Sept. 10, 2005, and closed the Lamar-Dixon makeshift hospital for 24 hours to handle sanitation issues and to schedule triage efforts. Coordinating the efforts of the HSUS, ASPCA, Louisiana State University, the Louisiana VMA and other groups has been complicated but, Hawkins said, “It is a pretty impressive coordinated deal now. It’s not perfect but there is no question that this is the largest animal rescue effort ever in the United States.”

Outside the shelter environment, veterinary professionals in Mississippi and Louisiana have been working around the clock to accommodate patients left in their care by evacuees as well as stray animals. Working with generators, flashlights and shop lights, AAHA members tell stories of examining 40 to 70 dogs per day while others have seen up to 100 animals during 18-hour shifts at shelters, according to rescue workers.

There is, however, a sliver of light on the horizon, said Hamilton, who spent two and a half weeks in Mississippi. “We have moved out of the response stage into the recovery stage,” he said. And while animals were continuing to trickle into shelters, communities were beginning to recovery and “police their own houses,” he said.

Along the lines of assisting with recovery efforts, the HSUS and ASPCA announced the creation of a new fund that will pay for the reconstruction of animal shelters devastated by Katrina. To date, the groups have given about $1.5 million to humane organizations and expect the price tag to reach $15 million, said the ASPCA’s Rayvid. For more Katrina stories, visit www.aahanet.org.