Animals to Be Included in Federal, Local Emergency Plans

In an effort to prevent future natural disasters from separating owners and their animals, as witnessed with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, at least two animal-inclusive emergency plans were introduced to Congress last month. The two hurricanes, which wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, highlighted the chasm between human and animal rescue efforts from access to victims to financial assistance for care; and the plans are intended to bridge it, said professionals. Legislative changes are aimed at the federal level, but the National Emergency Animal Rescue Coalition created by the American Humane Association (AHA), and the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS Act, H.R. 3858) would require state and local evacuation plans to include animals. In some states veterinarians have created animal-related emergency protocols but say that they struggle for recognition from Offices of Emergency Services and Animal Control.

“It [emergency preparedness] should start at the local level and work its way up to the federal level,” said Rebecca McConnico, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, who helped rescue about 400 horses in Louisiana over a seven-day period after Hurricane Katrina struck. McConnico was one of several panelists at a last-minute session on emergency preparedness at the Wild West Conference Oct. 5-9, 2005. The session, which was funded by Fort Dodge, attracted hundreds of veterinary professionals, who reviewed rescue efforts and discussed future needs. It was videotaped and may be aired during future conferences, according to speakers.

Panel members represented government and state groups as well as equine and small animal professionals and topics included the role veterinarians should play in disaster preparedness. “We talked about the need for veterinarians to play a more prominent role in their communities, to become more crisis-oriented, and take a more active role in prevention by training their clients,” McConnico said. An associate professor of equine medicine at Louisiana State University, McConnico is still working with clients affected by the hurricanes and has about 60 horses in the clinic that have not yet been claimed by owners.

A reversal of that scenario – the hundreds of Louisiana and Mississippi residents who refused to evacuate without their companion animals – was highlighted by the AHA in a letter to Congress to emphasize the need for animal-inclusive evacuation plans.

“We need the legislators to understand that 60-plus percent of American families have animals and most of them insist on taking their animals with them,” said Ripley Forbes, director of government affairs for AHA. “It’s easier to get families out before a hurricane hits, and they [officials] will have better compliance on evacuation if they consider the animals in their planning,” Forbes added. Days after Hurricane Katrina, when it became clear that people were not evacuating because of their pets, AHA established an agreement with the Red Cross to create coexisting shelters for evacuees and their animals, Forbes said.

AHA will host a debriefing for hurricane volunteers on Nov. 8, 2005, in an effort to identify areas of improvement for emergency response, Forbes said. “We have to decide what’s broken [with the system] before deciding what to fix,” he explained.

Veterinarians: First Responders

In addition to natural disasters, veterinarians are called upon during disease outbreaks. “Veterinarians are usually the first responders,” said Diane McClure, DVM, Veterinary Disaster Response Committee (VDRC) coordinator for Santa Barbara, Calif. The group, which McClure describes as a grassroots effort, was tested during the New Castle disease outbreak along with several fires and earthquakes in the state. The VDRC utilizes the Incident Command System that has been adopted by at least seven states with State Animal Response Teams (SART) in the United States, and members cede authority to state and federal offices during emergencies. “We don’t want to step on anybody’s toes,” she added.

The creation of small, animal-oriented groups has been a concern for federal emergency officials, who fear mass or random deployment of veterinary professionals, sources said. In fact, some veterinary professionals who arrived in Mississippi and Louisiana to help with hurricane efforts without an organized group, such as Rural Area Veterinary Services, were turned away because of safety, training, and licensing issues.

Professionals in the VDRC receive online disaster training twice a year and maintain databases of resource information, such as specialists in the area, locations for animal evacuation, and neighbors who can loan crates and other pet-related necessities. Because they are familiar with the geography, they can help direct emergency personnel, McClure said.

Local groups like the VDRC focus on animal owner preparedness, and the California group has seen improvements in that area, McClure said. “We ask owners to have evacuation kits in place for their animals complete with containment for the animal, food and water, identification, and a current health history,” she explained. Doctors encourage their clients to affix warning stickers to windows to alert emergency professionals that animals are inside, to visit the Red Cross website to obtain an online pet module for emergency preparedness checklist, and to familiarize their pets with crates and emphasize response to voice commands to facilitate quick evacuation of pets during emergencies. “Animals are sentient property,” McClure said. “People don’t want to leave their animals behind.”

McClure encourages doctors to create relationships with local representatives at the Office of Emergency Services, the Agricultural Commission, and Animal Control so that they will be consulted during emergencies. And while she has made strides toward that goal, McClure admits that, “We’re still struggling to get the animal component recognized” in state rescue efforts.

Emergency Plans Proposed

In a letter sent to Congress on Sept. 28, 2005, AHA outlined four changes to current legislation that include: immediate access to emergency areas to rescue animals, financial assistance for animal rescue and the replacement of animal control systems, the establishment of a “Red Cross Model” for animal rescue, and implementation of clear guidelines for future pet evacuations.

The National Emergency Animal Rescue Coalition includes the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and several other animal welfare organizations. Many of those organizations are working with senators to increase requirements included in the PETS Act, which would require cities and states to include pets in their emergency preparedness plans in order to receive funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In its current state, the act is too vague, professionals said.

“Until you have seen this type of a disaster with your own eyes,” you don’t realize what you need, McConnico said. “Even if you have a plan on paper, when you don’t have cell phone service or access to any records, how do you get the word out? Things got really scary,” she recalls. “There were situations that you couldn’t imagine; [situations] that were not in the pre-storm models.”

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