Getting ready for disaster

Dog owners should be prepared for calamity


It's said of many areas in summer: "If you don’t like the weather just stick around for an hour and its likely to change. . . ." Hot, sultry days can spawn severe afternoon and evening thunderstorms and worse. Although Dorothy’s Road to Oz started in Kansas, sometimes it seems as if she and Toto could have set off from a bike path in this part of the country instead.

Summer’s not the only season with a potential for bad weather, of course. In the mid-1970s, the Ohio River froze in a winter that saw many days of temperatures below zero, and several times in the past 100 years the mighty Ohio and its feeder streams have escaped their banks and flooded homes and businesses in river communities in Ohio and Kentucky.

In the past, the plight of animals in disasters like these was hardly noticed, but these days, when pets are part of the family and senses are tuned to animal welfare, local agencies cooperate to provide safe havens for the critters that share human lives. According to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services:

To most people, Fido and Squeaky are part of the family: They share the family home, beds and food. They bring joy, friendship and security. But studies show that when disaster strikes, most people leave the very thing that brings the most comfort, and lowers their blood pressure and stress level – their pets. After the disaster strikes and towns are declared disaster areas, most people are desperate to get back in to rescue their pets, putting human lives in danger as they return to unstable buildings and dangerous debris.

People come first, but people are attached to their animals, so it is natural that so much time and effort went into rescuing loose or abandoned animals and caring for them until they were reclaimed or adopted. After reviewing the state’s efforts during last year’s flooding, it became apparent that more preparation was needed to take care of animals in these situations

Obviously, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and prolonged and severe cold snaps can cause serious disruptions for individuals, neighborhoods, and communities. An integrated disaster plan for any community should include the safety of animals affected by dangerous weather phenomena, both for the animals’ sake and for that of the families that love them.

Be prepared

The first line of defense for animals in a disaster is owner preparation. Extra food, water, supplies and medicine; sturdy crates; a safe haven; and a sturdy leash for each dog are essential. If evacuation is necessary, shelters for people are unlikely to accept animals and motels that accept pets are likely to fill quickly, so owners should have contingency plans in mind.

Fido can be confined at home if the immediate threat has passed, the damage is not severe, and family members can visit two or three times a day to feed, exercise, and spend time with him. While he’s alone, he should have access to fresh water and dry food and should be confined securely enough that he cannot escape in a panic.

If flood waters are rising or the house has been demolished, badly battered, or undermined, Fido should be removed. That’s where the community animal welfare apparatus kicks in.

Hamilton County, Ohio SPCA

The second line of defense for animals in a disaster is the local animal shelter. In both the flood of 1997 and the tornado of 1999, the Hamilton County, Ohio SPCA rose to the challenge.

The SPCA handled about 50-60 animals during the flood, said shelter manager Andy Mahlman. The animals were housed in banks of cages placed temporarily in the auditorium of the Colerain Avenue animal shelter building in Northside. People donated cleaning supplies and other necessities and animals were kept until families could reclaim them.

“People opened up their hearts,” Mahlman said. “It was great.”

Some families brought their pets to the shelter because they had no where else to go, Mahlman said, but the SPCA also rescued animals that had been left in flooded homes and yards with its two boats, a 10-foot rowboat and a 16-foot motor boat.

The SPCA provided temporary housing for these dogs at no charge to animal owners. Mahlman said that the service is a way for the organization to give back to a community that generously supports its operations with donations of money and time.

The SPCA was also a focal point for veterinarians and others who want to help in a disaster. Some veterinarians accepted hurt or sick animals at their clinics, and others donated time in the shelter clinic. And Heinz Pet Food and The Iams Company chipped in with tons of food that the SPCA delivered to pet owning families through the local Red Cross chapter.

The tornado of 1999 brought the SPCA’s mobile unit to the scene in northeast corner of the county. The cages in the unit are generally used to carry adoptable dogs and cats to various locations around the county, but for a few days they held and transported family pets while families picked up the pieces of their lives. The pets were kept at the shelter until owners could reclaim them.

The Hamilton County SPCA is typical of those humane agencies that take disaster planning seriously. Although there is no written plan – “We kind of all know the drill,” Mahlman said – the organization has integrated its informal arrangements with police agencies, the Red Cross, pet supply companies, and local media. The society practices the readiness it preaches: a back-up generator and the mobile van generator provide power for the radio, phones, computer system, some lights, and kennel fans during the summer.

Other counties are not so fortunate. Clermont County Humane Society had no plan in place for the 1997 flood, but were able to call on EARS – the Emergency Animal Rescue Service – from California to set up a temporary shelter at the Clermont County Fairgrounds. The Clermont County Kennel Club donated money to the effort and members donated supplies and loaned crates to the makeshift shelter. Today, CCHS has equipment to begin rescue in a disaster but with limited funds and manpower cannot handle a major disaster, said Janet Wolf, a humane society volunteer.

The CCHS shelter is old, small, cramped, and unsuited for an influx of animals in a disaster. It has no auxiliary power system in case of an outage. CCHS volunteers were working with the local Red Cross chapter on a disaster plan for animals, Wolf said, but development has been shelved. However, the humane society will work with the Red Cross if disaster strikes. A CCHS volunteer fostered a dog for eight days after the 1999 tornado.

North Carolina

After Hurricane Floyd ripped through North Carolina last year, officials decided that a statewide disaster plan was necessary for pets and farm animals. They formed SART – the State Animal Response Team – at the state level and a CART – County Animal Response Team – in each county. The SART suggestions for pet owners are:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also suggests:

For information about disaster plans for your county, call the county shelter. To help shelters develop and carry out disaster plans, volunteer time, give money, or donate cleaning supplies when an emergency strikes.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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