It was probably the story of a New Orleans boy and his little white dog named Snowball that changed evacuation policy for years to come.
Back in 2005, during the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, the Associated Press reported the story of a New Orleans boy who had to evacuate to the Superdome with his family. Officials took away his dog because it was not allowed at the evacuation center. He called “Snowball!,” began crying, and threw up.
America’s hearts were captured by the idea that not only were thousands of people forced from their homes, but they had to be suddenly separated from their beloved pets, not knowing if they’d ever see them again.
But during Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast this past October, things were drastically different.
“One of the biggest lessons we learned from Katrina was that clients do bring their pets with them.” – Dena Skelly
Was this a lesson learned from Katrina, or a coincidence?
After Hurricane Katrina, Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, a bipartisan way for the U.S. House of Representatives to require states that were seeking Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance to allow pets to evacuate with their owners.
It was authored by two congressmen – Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California, and Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut. The PETS Act was an amendment to the Robert Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which ensured that state and local emergency agencies would be sensitive to the needs of pet owners following a major disaster or emergency. Lantos said he wanted to do something for those who were forced to leave their pets behind during Katrina, including Snowball (who, it was reported, was eventually found at a shelter and reunited with his owner).
The act had opposition, however. In fact, Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland and even Barack Obama voted against it in the Senate. Those opposed believed that it would unfairly give federal control over local emergency planning and take away from efforts to protect humans.
Hudson County protecting their beloved pets
During Tropical Storm Irene last year, and Hurricane Sandy this year, local towns appeared to have open minds and open hearts about pets.
Jersey City’s shelter for people and their pets was at Pershing Field in The Heights. Jersey City Animal Control’s Division was also prepared to accommodate the pets with the town’s Office of Emergency Management’s (OEM) Mobile Animal Rescue trailer.
Jersey City Spokesperson Jennifer Morrill said the pet evacuation trailer has its own generator that provides light inside and out, heat, air conditioning, a working sink, 30 built-in cages, and a seating area. Morrill also mentioned that it is stocked with enough food and water to accommodate 100 dogs and cats for a week.
“The trailer is always ready to deploy from the OEM compound, is stocked with 200 cardboard cat and small dog carriers, crates, muzzles, leashes, collars, blankets, cat litter, litter boxes, bowls for food and water, as well as some basic first aid supplies for pets,” said Morrill. “Our Pet Readiness Plan allows us in a moment’s notice to open up our pet-friendly shelter. If the pet is at risk to others or ill, [the town] will put the pet in the trailer, which is kept approximately 100 feet next to the pet friendly shelter.”
Also, the County Animal Response Teams (CART), directed by the county OEM with the cooperation of the American Red Cross, have been working on a disaster plan for Hudson County’s animals.
Jersey City did ask owners to provide a crate, carrier, or bed large enough for their pet, as well as food stored in a plastic air-tight container, water, pet toys, and medical records.
“Under the direction of Mayor Healy, Jersey City has an advanced OEM and is very progressive when it comes to animal-related issues,” said Morrill. “Jersey City has had a Pet Evacuation and Disaster Readiness plan in place since 2009. We fully understand that there will be a situation that requires immediate evacuation and this is why we will assist our residents with needed supplies to keep their pets fed and comfortable.”
Hoboken, much of which was underwater during Hurricane Sandy, had a pet-friendly shelter at the Wallace School.
“We allowed pets in our shelter like we did last year during Hurricane Irene,” said spokesperson Juan Melli.
North Bergen’s two shelters, at the high school and the John F. Kennedy School, allowed pets throughout Hurricane Sandy and during its aftermath.
According to North Bergen Spokesperson Phil Swibinski, the decision to allow pets was made after a few residents asked if they could bring them.
“Allowing pets was the humane thing to do and was an easy decision for township officials,” he said. “It was more a common sense measure to allow pet owners to take care of their animals and not discourage them from using the shelters.”
No animal left behind
“Katrina taught us so much,” said Red Cross Sheltering Manager Mary Dooley last week. “We did learn people do bring their pets with them, especially for a mandatory evacuation.”
Dooley said that during the recent storm, transportation companies were allowing passengers to bring their pets.
Another Red Cross Sheltering Manager, Dena Skelly, said the Red Cross has partnered with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), County Animal Response Teams (CARTs), Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), local veterinarians, and groomers who can shelter pets. Skelly said the Red Cross worked with the CART and CERTs for Hudson County.
“We were able to be co-located next to a shelter in one facility and in the hall of another,” said Skelly. “This was very good for the recovery of clients as they could visit with their pets several times daily. It was a great partnership and is very much one of the many initiatives of the American Red Cross to make the best situation for our clients during disasters, which are even more stressful when you are worried about your pets.”
Vanessa Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org