Working in animal welfare for over 30 years, I have certainly seen my share of natural disasters and how they impact animals and families in the community. Witnessing hurricanes in New York City, wildlife fires in San Diego, and ice storms and tornados in Oklahoma gives me a real appreciation for the prevention, education and recovery efforts that go into managing disasters for both people and animals. In each city, my organizations were considered first responders for animal issues working closely with the city’s incident command structure. As the lead agency for animal issues during a time of disaster, we needed to be ready for animal rescue, temporary sheltering of displaced animals and educating the community about lost and found pets. We also needed to monitor the disaster to protect the shelter and the animals in it.
I had a pit in my stomach when I first heard of the horrible hurricane that destroyed Texas last week. My heart went out to the people who lost everything and the animals that were displaced in the storm. I thought of the first responders working tirelessly around the clock. It reminded me of a time when a tornado hit Oklahoma. The alarms went off, the TV news told us to be ready, and my phone started ringing off the hook because the city had enacted its disaster protocol.
During the tornado alert, I quickly realized I did not have a proactive disaster plan for my own family. I had spent so many years telling others what to do and how to be prepared, yet I never had created a plan when we moved to our new place. I scrambled to put together a kit for us that could be taken in a moment’s notice if we had to evacuate. For our pets, the kit included water, food, a carrier, vaccination records, a picture and, of course, immediate access to their leash. Good news is they always wear current ID tags and their microchips were updated when we moved.
Next, I thought, where would we evacuate to? We scrambled to find a local hotel, evacuation shelter or friends who had their own underground shelter who might have space for us. The “US” included our pets, as they are part of our family, too. Oddly, our pets were probably the ones that kept us sane, as they stayed close and protective of us while we stressed.
All of this was happening as I was in minute-by-minute communication with my amazing team. We had field officers monitoring the community, staff hunkered down at the animal shelter and others tweeting disaster tips to the community. Partner animal rescue organizations were in regular communication, offering personnel and supplies.
The shelter ended up not having any damage. We only had to rescue a few animals in the field, but did open a temporary animal shelter connected to the Red Cross human shelter. We manned that shelter 24/7 for more than a week. While the tornado caused damage in the community, my family was lucky and we ended up not evacuating. But boy did we learn a lesson for the future about being prepared.
Please consider the following regarding pets during the time of a disaster:
• Make a family pledge to protect your pets during the time of a disaster.
• Start your planning now. Know where you will go if you have to evacuate and have an emergency kit that includes your pets.
• Pay attention to warnings and evacuation suggestions. Bring your pets inside as a precaution.
• Make sure your pets have a tag and microchip that is current, so if they get lost they can be returned to you.
• Follow your local shelter and animal control social media pages to get up-to-date information on animal issues during a disaster.
Right now there are multiple animal welfare agencies working together on the ground to assist pets during this recent disaster in Texas. They could use your help. Consider supporting an animal organization today. Contact the Houston SPCA or one of the national animal welfare organizations (ASPCA, HSUS, AHA) for a list of needs. The Pasadena Humane Society is in touch with those affected and is on standby to assist in any way possible. Visit pasadenahumane.org for more information on disaster preparedness and our role in assisting.