By all accounts, the evacuation of people and pets from the Gulf Coast for Hurricane Gustav was a success—in contrast to the situation before Hurricane Katrina.
During Katrina, three years ago, some people stayed behind with pets because most evacuation vehicles did not allow animals at the time.
Ahead of Gustav, which made landfall Sept. 1, the Louisiana State Animal Response Team and Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry oversaw the orderly evacuation and sheltering of companion animals from the state's coast, with assistance from local volunteers and various humane groups.
"We wanted to make sure that no one would have any reason not to evacuate," said Dr. Mike Strain, state agriculture commissioner.
Dr. Heather Case, AVMA coordinator for emergency preparedness and response, said the AVMA helped organize standby veterinary volunteers and supplies from other states and the animal health industry.
"The successful evacuation for Hurricane Gustav highlighted the significant progress Louisiana has made since Katrina, not only through ongoing planning but also through practicing their plans before the emergency," Dr. Case said.
When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, the state had established temporary shelters for animal evacuees but did not have provisions for evacuating the pets of people with no means of transportation. Louisiana animal responders spent the time before Gustav developing a protocol for evacuating pets, increasing the capacity of temporary pet shelters, and holding frequent training exercises.
"This is the first time in Louisiana that there has been a coordinated effort to evacuate these pets," said Dr. Becky Adcock, deputy director of the Louisiana SART. "Hurricane Gustav provided a real test of the effectiveness of this system, and it was a success."
Animal crates sit next to a truck in Lake Charles, La., in the southwestern corner of the state, before Gustav.
Calcasieu Parish Animal Services loaded pets for evacuation.
Dr. Martha Littlefield, assistant state veterinarian, said pet owners could take small animals on evacuation buses, while larger animals rode in refrigerated trucks—about 90 pets per truck. The animal evacuees traveled to temporary pet shelters in Shreveport and Alexandria, she said, and almost all the owners traveled to nearby shelters for human evacuees.
Veterinarians oversaw the temporary pet shelters, with assistance from many other volunteers. The state fairgrounds in Shreveport housed more than 1,500 dogs, cats, and other animals—most of them belonging to people with no means of transportation. Pet owners cared for their own animals, Dr. Littlefield said, except for people who stayed farther away because of space limitations at shelters for human evacuees.
In New Orleans, a volunteer talks to a small dog inside a carrier
during the evacuation for Hurricane Gustav. Pet owners could
take small pets on evacuation buses.
A number of humane groups assisted with pet evacuation, including evacuation of animal shelters near the coast, and supported the temporary pet shelters. The groups included the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, SPCA of Texas, American Humane Association, Humane Society of the United States, Noah's Wish, International Fund for Animal Welfare, ASPCA, and United Animal Nations.
Many pet owners who evacuated via their own vehicles did bring their animals along ahead of the hurricane. Dr. James Rundell, Louisiana VMA president, was in charge of a temporary pet shelter in Monroe that housed some of the animals belonging to self-evacuating coastal residents.
Dr. Rundell said pet owners started arriving with their animals at 4 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 31. The shelter housed numerous animals by late Monday. Because human and animal evacuees were in close proximity, he added, pet owners were able to come to the animal shelter frequently to walk and play with their pets.
At the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge, closer to the coast, the veterinary teaching hospital remained open for emergency service during Hurricane Gustav.
In the days following the hurricane, hospital director Dr. Steven Winkler said, "We are seeing some pets with injuries from the storm, such as cuts from storm debris and animal bites. We are also seeing a number of animals from referral veterinarians because so many of those clinicians are not able to open their offices, or their phone lines are out and the clients are not able to reach their veterinarians."
While LSU lost power, like much of Baton Rouge, the veterinary hospital ran off of generators—though largely without air conditioning. The wildlife hospital treated dozens of squirrels and birds, while the large animal hospital treated a few horses.
The veterinary school also sent its mobile clinic for small animals to Houma, which suffered some of the worst damage from Hurricane Gustav. The school developed the emergency response unit with the American Kennel Club after Hurricane Katrina.
Bland O'Connor, executive director of the Louisiana VMA, said Gustav didn't turn out to be as destructive as Katrina. Within a week of Gustav, the state VMA had received few reports of problems at veterinary clinics, other than power outages.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, Louisiana will be applying for reimbursement under the federal Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006. The law requires state emergency plans to address the needs of people with pets.
"The evacuation of almost 2 million people and countless pets from the Gulf Coast states in advance of Gustav played a significant role in reducing human and animal injury or death from another killer storm," said Dr. Larry Kornegay, who represents Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas on the AVMA Executive Board. "Permitting people to evacuate with their pets accompanying them was a major factor in facilitating timely evacuation."
Veterinarians who incurred expenses because of Gustav may apply for reimbursement from the American Veterinary Medical Foundation. The AVMF provides up to $5,000 for veterinary care of animal victims and up to $2,000 for restoration of veterinary infrastructure. Louisiana veterinarians may apply for grants or loan guarantees from the state VMA's Dr. Walter J. Ernst Jr. Veterinary Memorial Foundation.
The AVMF and Walter J. Ernst foundation are accepting monetary donations. Information about grants and donations is available at www.avmf.org and www.lvma.org/wjefoundation.html.
How does the AVMA respond to disasters?