Responders in several states rush to aid animals impacted by twin disasters
posted May 31, 2011
Animals being taken into the shelter in Memphis, Tenn.
The severe weather system that pounded the Southeast April 25-28 spawned more than 300 tornadoes, killing 340 people and leaving scores more injured and homeless. Within days, floodwaters along the rain-swollen Mississippi River and its tributaries were compounding the disaster.
"This truly is the worst disaster I have ever seen, because it's so spread out and it's two different event—catastrophic tornadoes going through multiple communities, and then the flooding, which has already devastated communities but is slowly creeping further south," said Tim Rickey, senior director of field investigations and response for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Tens of thousands of animals have been impacted, he said. The ASPCA alone had assisted more than 4,000 animals, and Rickey said many other organizations were doing the same type of work.
On May 10, when JAVMA News caught up with Rickey in Caruthersville, Mo., the worst of the flooding was over in Missouri, but responders were geared up as the high water pushed south through Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana toward the Gulf.
The ASPCA came to the river city to help the Caruthersville Humane Society implement its disaster evacuation plan. Teams transported almost 600 owned animals to an emergency shelter the ASPCA set up in a warehouse 20 miles from the river.
"In rural areas when people want to evacuate with their pets, oftentimes their pets are farm animals," Rickey added, so the ASPCA made provisions at a fairground for two goats, 20 chickens, and 17 horses.
The river crested May 8 at Caruthersville without flooding the city, but many rural areas of the county did flood. There and throughout the affected states, groups such as the ASPCA were reaching out to identify rural areas where animal-related assistance and resources were needed. In partnership with PetSmart Charities Inc., the ASPCA also set up a centralized supply distribution point.
"We set up the distribution center in Memphis so that we could support all the operations, both where the tornadoes affected people as well as the impending flooding at that time. We realized Memphis would probably be the best location to get things both down South as well as into Arkansas and up into Missouri," Rickey said.
PetSmart Charities brought tractor-trailers filled with supplies, which the ASPCA has been transporting to local organizations to stock their emergency shelters. Mars Petcare has been providing food at the distribution centers at Memphis and the Greater Birmingham (Ala.) Humane Society.
Being a member of the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition, the ASPCA immediately called for help from three of its coalition partners—the American Humane Association, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Code 3 Associates. The ASPCA is working with Code 3 in Missouri, and with American Humane and IFAW in Tennessee. The AVMA is an associate member of the coalition.
Debrah Schnackenberg, senior vice president of AHA Emergency Services Programs, was on location in Memphis, where American Humane was in charge of shelter management and water rescue operations. The AHA brought a horse trailer along with its 18-wheeler rescue truck, which carries watercraft and equipment, and houses the staff and responders.
"Our challenge right now is watching the opening of human shelters, because as they open up, we will take in more animals," Schnackenberg said. A local volunteer is sent to each human shelter to arrange to transport people's pets to the animal shelter.
"The secondary challenge is our boats are out doing owner-requested rescues and assessments in critical areas to figure out if a rescue boat is needed by pet owners who may or may not be aware they've been taking on more water (at their home)."
The ASPCA and American Humane were working closely with the state veterinarians and with local veterinarians and veterinary technicians who volunteer at the shelters.
"We've had good support from the veterinarian community but continue to look for more resources," Rickey said. "Veterinarians are one of the most vital elements of any type of emergency sheltering or evacuation operation."
Dr. Jennifer Dunlap, veterinarian for the Humane Society of Memphis and Shelby County, spearheaded the ASPCA's shelter operations in the city. She said the society was rescuing cats, dogs, and exotics. Many were found covered in ticks in areas near the Mississippi River. Dr. Dunlap said some had hypothermia and others required pet oxygen masks. The rescued animals were being decontaminated, vaccinated, dewormed, and treated with flea medication.
The first weekend in May, the shelter started to take in fewer rescued animals and to board more pets whose owners were staying at human shelters.
Impact of deadly tornadoes
In Alabama, the number of human deaths from the tornadoes was estimated at 230. On April 27 a rare EF5 tornado, with wind speeds of up to 200 mph, traveled 132 miles across the northern part of the state, reportedly killing 70 people.
The Alabama VMA was still assessing the scope of damage at press time, but association president Dr. Libby Todd had heard no reports of veterinary practices destroyed or association members hurt or killed. "Numerous" practices experienced some structural damage, she added.
The storms left hundreds of pets homeless, however. Since most of them aren't identified with a microchip, reuniting them with their owners will be difficult, Dr. Todd said.
In the storms' aftermath, the disaster response for Alabama's pets and livestock is being handled at the state and local levels, with limited personnel assistance from the Humane Society of the United States, Dr. Todd said.
To make room for displaced animals until their owners can be located, the ASPCA transport team is helping relocate animals from existing shelters in Alabama, Arkansas, and other parts of the South to facilities in the Northeast.
The tornadoes that killed nearly 40 people and caused a hundred reported injuries in eastern Tennessee also killed livestock, knocked out power for dairies, and destroyed fences that held cattle. Dr. Douglas E. Balthaser, state coordinator of the local disaster animal response teams, said teams have responded to many reports of loose and injured animals. Loose livestock and horses were moved to farms, and the state helped set up a shelter that housed up to 100 companion animals in Greene County.
Approximately 5 million chickens in Alabama and elsewhere were impacted when some 200 grow-out houses were destroyed and hundreds more were damaged, according to the National Chicken Council.
Veterinary schools offer a hand
No veterinary schools or colleges were greatly impacted by the storms, and they have been participating in the response and recovery efforts.
Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine, located about 80 miles west of the hard-hit city of Tuscaloosa, Ala., is working with the Mississippi Animal Response Team and members of the Mississippi VMA to conduct assessments of animal needs and veterinary concerns in areas affected by the tornadoes. Local veterinarians were handling the workload.
Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine held a drive May 14 to collect pet, horse, and cleaning supplies to be distributed among the animal shelters. Many shelters in north and west Alabama were overwhelmed and needed help until animals and families could be reunited.
Jennifer A. Spencer, PhD, a professor in the Department of Pathobiology at Auburn's veterinary college, and second-year veterinary student Noel McKnight helped organize the citywide drive. The Alabama Emergency Management Agency donated a truck that took the supplies to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society, the central drop-off and distribution point for the shelters in northern Alabama.
At Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine, two clinicians from the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, Drs. Robert Horne and E. Ricardo Bridges, were providing community service outreach by vaccinating dogs in northern Alabama.
After the tornadoes, Schnackenberg said the AHA determined the greatest need was financial resources. The AHA provided grants to four shelters-one in North Carolina, one in Georgia, and two in Alabama.
The American Veterinary Medical Foundation has two programs that help veterinarians who have been affected by such disasters. The Disaster Veterinary Animal Care Reimbursement program reimburses veterinarians up to $5,000 for care they provide to the animal victims of disaster.
The Disaster Veterinary Practice Relief program awards grants up to $2,000 to veterinarians whose practices are damaged in a disaster.
Applications for both can be found at www.avmf.org. Veterinarians must apply within nine months of a disaster.
Pfizer Animal Health is working with the AVMF through a new voucher program. Vouchers for $100 will be distributed through the company's sales teams to veterinarians who are caring for animals in disaster areas. The program will run until July 30.
VMATs and vigilance
Dr. Heather Case, AVMA coordinator for emergency preparedness and response, said, "The AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams have not been activated due to the successful local response of veterinarians, yet we continue to monitor the situation.
"The tornadoes and spring flooding remind us how important it is for all veterinarians to engage in emergency preparedness and response in their communities."