Special two-part feature: Part 1 – Pets in Disasters and Part 2 – Populations with Special Needs in Disasters
PART 1: PETS IN DISASTERS
In nearly every natural disaster, the stories are the same: a family is heartbroken over having to leave their beloved pet at home as they evacuate in the face of an oncoming disaster. Or worse, people refuse to evacuate because they are unable to take their pets with them and both pets and homeowners are found dead in the aftermath of the disaster.
Emergency managers have noted in case after case that the leading reason citizens are unwilling to evacuate is because they can’t take their pets with them. Following Hurricane Katrina, this led to the 2006 Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, which mandated FEMA to plan for the needs of pet owners and fund emergency shelter facilities for pets. This federal recognition of the importance of addressing the needs of pets and their owners has been a key step in raising awareness and addressing the challenge of caring for pets in disasters.
Despite this legislation, your best course of action is to prepare personally for the needs of your pets in disasters. In addition to having a pet disaster kit to care for your animal at home in a disaster, you should be prepared to successfully evacuate with your pet should the need arise.
Keys Steps for Pet Preparedness (Small Animal)
- Identification: During the chaos of a disaster, pets sometimes get separated from their owners. It’s imperative to have identification with your pet so they can be reunited. The most efficient way to identify a pet is to use a collar with identification tag. This will make it easy for anyone to help quickly reunite your pet with you. Pets can also be microchipped, but accessing your contact information will require a special reader (shelters and many veterinarians have these chip readers).
- Notification: You won’t always be home when house fire or disaster strikes, so it is important for first responders to know if you have pets at your home. “Rescue Alert Stickers” are available from the ASPCA and some pet stores to notify responders about your pets. If resources allow during a disaster, this will provide clear communication to first responders that there are pets at your residence. If you evacuate with your pets, be sure to write EVACUATED across the sticker so resources are not wasted searching for pets that are no longer at your home.
- Evacuation: If you are ordered to evacuate, take your pets with you. Recent disasters are filled with stories of people not leaving because of pets or making the decision to tie pets to trees or lock them in houses; both situations can quickly lead to tragedy. When evacuating, you will want to know where you can go with your pet. This could be a friend’s or relative’s home in neighboring areas, but might also be a boarding kennel, or even a hotel that accepts pet. These are things to check on in advance of a disaster. If you need to go to an emergency shelter, keep in mind that most will not allow you to bring your pet inside the shelter (Red Cross Shelters do not allow pets inside). However, there are growing resources around developing pet-friendly shelter options, where pets can remain close to their owners in shelters. Look for information in your area about pet-friendly shelter options. A good resource is the PetFriendlyTravel.com.
- Designated Caregivers: When a disaster strikes, you may not be at home or may not be able to get home after the disaster. Identify someone who is close to your house and is able to care for your pet or evacuate them if you are unable to make it home. Also, consider designating a permanent caregiver who would adopt your pet if something were to happen to you. These arrangements need to be made well before any potential disaster. Keep in mind that any designated caregiver will need keys to your house (if your animals are kept inside), so this should be someone you trust with both your pet and your home.
- Disaster Kits: A dedicated pet disaster kit should include food and water for seven days, feeding dishes, a water bowl, collar/harness and extra leash, blanket, toys, litter and disposable tray (if applicable), garbage bags and paper towels, and pet medications and records. It is highly recommend that you keep a photo of your pet in your disaster kit in case they are lost and need to be identified.
Large Animal Disaster Preparedness
Addressing the needs of large animals, such as horses or livestock during disasters, present unique challenges. In addition to the key steps for small animal preparedness, caring for large animals during or after a disaster requires even more pre-planning and preparation to address additional logistical needs. Efforts to mitigate risk and exposure should be completed before a disaster to address area specific hazards, such as minimizing debris that could go airborne in high winds or ensuring that areas around barns or structures are free of brush and have adequate defensible space to protect against wildfires. Since evacuation will require trucks and horse or livestock trailers, a list of resources with the necessary equipment should be kept up-to-date at all times, and the equipment should be kept in good repair and fully fueled. Animals need to be familiarized with the process of being trailered, otherwise they may be uncooperative with the additional stress of an impending disaster. Making pre-arrangements now with multiple receiving sites outside of the area will facilitate a destination should evacuation be required. Disaster kits should be prepared to adequately care for animals on-site or during evacuation, and should include adequate water, which may not be available after a disaster. In some situations, evacuation will not be possible; moving animals to the safest location within their current space and providing them with adequate food and water is the last available option.
- Disaster Preparedness - ASPCA
- Make a Disaster Plan for your Pet - The Humane Society
- Large Animals and Livestock in Disasters - AVMA
PART 2: POPULATIONS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS IN DISASTERS
Certain groups are particularly vulnerable to the effects of disaster, such as children, the elderly, and those with physical, functional, or mental disabilities. Planning for the needs of these individuals that may have special needs is necessary to ensure their safety during disasters. In addition to general preparedness steps—developing a disaster plan and having emergency supplies set aside—some added steps can protect these unique populations.
Key Steps to Address Populations with Special Needs
- Identification: Individuals with special needs should be identified before a disaster. Their location must be known, along with their functional ability and particular needs requiring support in a disaster, such as use of a wheelchair, service animal, or medical equipment. This information should be known by those who can provide assistance in a disaster. Those providing assistance will also need to have readily available access (e.g., keys). Many local public safety agencies (police or fire) will also create a registry of those with who need special assistance or have unique needs before a disaster. This allows public safety agencies to ensure resources are available to these individuals during an evacuation and welfare checks are conducted on these individuals following a disaster.
- Risk Communication: The elderly and those with special needs are disproportionately impacted by disasters. In many situations, they do not evacuate when the orders are given—not because of an unwillingness to heed protective instructions, but often because they do not hear the warning or do not have their own transportation readily available. It is imperative to adapt emergency warnings and notifications so they reach those with sight or hearing impairments, or other impairments that would prevent a message from getting through. In some situations, this means sending someone to their home to notify them in person.
- Evacuation: Children, elderly, and those with special needs may need assistance with evacuation because they do not have access to transportation or possess the ability to operate a vehicle. Additionally, they may need to take additional items with them during an evacuation, such as mobility devices or medical equipment that will require specialized transport to move them in a disaster. Recognizing the required resources to successfully evacuate these individuals is crucial to success in a disaster.
- Shelter and Care Sites: The suitability of alternative care sites, such as homes, hotels, or nursing facilities should be evaluated in advance. If someone with special needs or mobility issues is taken to a general population shelter, necessary equipment such personal adaptive equipment or medical devices may need to be brought along to support that individual. Shelter staff must be notified about the specific needs of that individual to ensure accommodation, such as placing them closer to restrooms and other essential facilities. In many situations, shelter staff will not be able to care directly for those with special needs, so a care provider will need to accompany that individual.
- Continuity: Keeping one week’s worth of medications, spare glasses, or a backup cane, walker, or manual wheelchair are invaluable in a disaster. These basics will help someone with special needs continue to function in a new environment. A copy of medical devices with model numbers, prescriptions, insurance cards, and doctors/care providers also help ensure continuity.