Disaster conference gives animal issues a seat at the table

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Noah had his share of problems. Apart from the prospect of not having flood insurance, he had the arduous task of gathering a complementary pair of each of the animal species on his ark. If Noah were alive today, he'd have the added responsibilities of managing evacuation plans with the state and local government, contending with traffic jams exiting the major routes of the city, coordinating veterinary teams to assist in the safe transport and care of the animals, and talking to the news media.

Issues of animal safety in a disaster have undoubtedly grown more complex, but one timeless message endures from Noah to generation next, that is, awareness and preparedness are paramount. One way to learn and improve on the process of disaster management is to combine the resources and experiences of those who have experienced disasters firsthand.

pig rescue following Hurricane Floyd
Saved by the boat: These pigs were rescued during Hurricane Floyd, but large animal recoveries can take considerably more time than small animal recoveries. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Tom McGinn)

These shared resources and experiences came together at the National Animal Disaster Conference 2000, March 22-24 in Orlando. The conference was sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Florida Division of Emergency Management, and the USDA. In addition to the workshops were several general assemblies, including discussion of animal issues in relation to emergency management systems, evacuation issues, and lessons learned from past disasters.

The memory of the darkened skies and apprehension that accompanied Hurricane Irene in Florida, six months earlier, and the ever-present threat of a new hurricane season looming within the next six months was forgotten by no one at the conference. It was appropriate and notable, then, that the conference, which attracted attendees from 34 states plus Canada and the United Kingdom, was held in Florida, the first state to create an emergency support function for animals (ESF-17).

To gain the kind of recognition, community awareness, and federal help required for aiding animals in disasters, the people concerned with protecting animals need to transcend the erroneous perception that disasters are a distinctly human problem and that care for animals is ancillary. One of the primary messages of the conference was that the two issues are inseparable.

"Caring for animals is a credible component of providing care to people, because the needs of animals are inevitably linked to the needs of people," said Patricia Forkan, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, during one of the four general assemblies. Forkan spoke of a time within the past 10 years when issues of animals in disasters were not given the attention they needed. "I clearly remember our teams going into disaster areas and essentially being told that animal needs weren't even on the list of priorities, much less anywhere near the top."

A distinct change came in 1992, she said, when Hurricane Andrew destroyed a 20 mile by 50 mile area, leaving humans and animals homeless and adrift. "The needs of animals in the wake of Andrew were enormous and couldn't be ignored."

Caring for animals is a credible component of providing care to people, because the needs of animals are inevitably linked to the needs of people."

—Patricia Forkan

In the days following the landfall of Andrew, the HSUS set up a temporary animal shelter and MASH unit that housed and cared for hundreds of displaced animals.

"We've come a long way since 1992," Forkan said. "Animal issues now have a seat at the table." Many states are forming Animal Disaster Planning Advisory Committees, a concept the HSUS pioneered. Forkan said they are proving to be an effective way of bringing the animal component to disaster planning at every level. "These committees work with the county and state emergency management systems to integrate preparedness and response plans for humans and animals."

Forkan stressed the need for disaster planning and response to be locally based and supported. Speaking directly to the numerous animal shelter employees and volunteers, she asserted: "The first lines of defense for animals are the people who love them and the community that surrounds them.

left outside during the storm
Aches and panes. This dog was left outside on its porch during Floyd and chewed at the window sill in a valiant attempt to get back into the house. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Maryann McBride)

"No matter how quickly [HSUS] acts, we can't reach animals as quickly as you can. Every animal evacuated with their family is an animal that won't have to be rescued later."

During the onslaught of Hurricane Floyd in Florida in September 1999, an estimated three million people evacuated their homes, the largest peacetime evacuation in the state's history. Approximately 1.7 million citizens funneled their way through three interstate highway exits. In an evacuation, a considerable number of pet owners have a strong desire to save their pets, often putting themselves at risk to do so. Factor in the statistic that 58.9 percent of US households have pets, and you have a problem that needs to be reckoned with when relocation becomes necessary.

These statistics were broken down into finer, illuminating detail when Dr. Sebastian Heath of Lafayette, Ind, veterinary disaster management consultant for the American Academy on Veterinary Disaster Medicine, presented the first module of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Animals in Disaster study course on the subject of awareness. Awareness can make the results of disasters more predictable, and through his knowledge of disasters involving animals, Dr. Heath asserts that, although disasters can affect a community in many ways, most disasters create similar consequences.

"The single most common reason people return to an evacuation disaster site is to rescue their pets," Dr. Heath said.

The second part of the FEMA course, presented by Frieda Kerry-Witt, was geared toward emergency managers and veterinarians interested in developing community plans to treat animals after disasters. Kerry-Witt, an animal disaster preparedness community specialist, is involved with local and county agencies in King County, Seattle. Building on the foundation Dr. Heath erected about disaster awareness, she talked about her experiences in implementing community plans for the care of animals.

"Communities must have one unified message of evacuation," Kerry Witt said, echoing a prevalent sentiment of the conference. "Furthermore, it's necessary to unify all the animal groups with a single, focused disaster plan."

Part of the FEMA disaster training session touched on the needs of large animals. Dr. Heath indicated that the human-animal bond that affects pet owners in times of disaster extends to livestock production, too. "Livestock producers depend on animals for their livelihood. There are economic and cultural concerns associated with livestock," he said.

The subject was discussed in depth in a workshop on the unique needs of large animals in a disaster.Joe Kight, assistant director of the division of animal industry, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, moderated the workshop and extolled the value of preassessment.

"Preassessment means survey the area, and know where the animals are and where they're going to go," Kight said. "If you're the ESF-17 county coordinator, go to the county cattlemen's association meeting and find out where the cattle are. Contact the county farm bureau. You have to go to them; they're not going to come to you." He also suggested contacting large animal veterinarians and assessing the size and type of their clientele to gain further knowledge about animal population.

Dr. Tom McGinn, assistant state veterinarian for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, also spoke about large animal issues.

"We've been on a steep learning curve with these recent disasters," he said, punctuating his remarks with a series of slides showing harrowing examples of farm animals stranded in the diluvial aftermath of Hurricane Floyd.

He suggested that animal disaster organizers look to farmers for some solutions. "In an emergency, what we need to do as soon as possible is find the producers who are solving problems," he said.

During a general assembly on animal issues and the Emergency Management System, Craig Fugate, bureau chief for preparedness and response with the state of Florida, explained the ESF-17 program initiated in his state. "We base our response on a functional approach to disasters, not an agency-specific approach."

"You can't do things on the spur of the moment," Fugate said, reiterating one of the key messages of the conference: preparedness. "You'd better know where you're going and where you're going to bring your pet boa, because they don't do real well with the birds," he quipped.

During Hurricane George, Fugate witnessed people fighting local officials to go in and rescue their animals. "The resources were there, it could have been done, but it wasn't properly coordinated."

turkey flock devastated in storm
A turkey house after the storm: The poultry industry, including this unfortunate flock, was hard hit during Floyd. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Tom McGinn)

Fugate said one of the most important things to remember about animals and disasters is that "people will not take appropriate measures to take care of themselves if they can't take care of their pets."

The purpose of evacuation, he said, is to get people out of harm's way. "If people are choosing to stay, we have not improved the situation," he said, adding, "If people are going to choose behavior that puts them in harm's way to save and protect their animals, we're going to lose people. It's as simple as that."

The best-laid plans of mice and disaster organizers cannot preclude the unforeseen fallout from a disaster. Even when the finest efforts of individuals are applied there are still plenty of poststorm spin doctors ready to point fingers for what was not done.

"If the care of the animals is substandard," Fugate said, "the suspicion is that the care of the residents is also substandard. More and more in the United States we're seeing the response to the incident is being judged by the level of response to the animals."

Accordingly, a good rapport with the news media and a clear understanding of how to avoid the pitfalls involved with being interviewed is critical to animal organizations involved in disasters.

According to reporter Liz Compton, who led a workshop about dealing with the media, representatives of animal-related organizations had also better be ready and willing to go on camera and present things in a cohesive manner. Compton, a former Florida TV anchor and current program information director for the Florida Department of Agriculture, presented her valuable media insights with the help of Jim Loftus, public information officer for the Florida Department of Community Affairs.

A section devoted to veterinary issues in disaster medicine, moderated by Dr. Cindy Lovern, assistant director of emergency preparedness and response for the AVMA, included insights about the Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMAT) and disaster preparedness.

"The most important goal of predisaster planning is to reduce the number of victims in a disaster," Dr. Lovern said. "By increasing public awareness and encouraging individual disaster planning, the number of victims will drastically decrease." The result, she said, is that owners and caregivers will prepare for the animals for which they are responsible, leading to a decrease in the death and injury toll for animals and people.

Currently four VMAT teams are in operation, based in Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, and California. Dr. Lovern reminded conference attendees that, unlike some regional animal disaster response teams, VMAT are not self-deploying; its members become temporary federal employees when activated by the National Disaster Medical System, at the request of the affected state.

"When the local veterinary community is overwhelmed, the affected state can request federal assistance through FEMA," Dr. Lovern said. "The VMAT are on a stand-by to provide the needed veterinary assistance during disasters."

Dr. James Hamilton, team leader of VMAT #3, explained that the function the team served during Floyd was not strictly related to their veterinary medical skills.

"Probably the most important role VMAT played in response to Floyd was to make some sort of sense out of chaos that existed in a number of counties that had little or no ability to deal with the animal issues within [those counties]," he said. "VMAT assistance took many forms during Floyd, the least of which was treating animals. Our best role was coordinating talents in that situation."

During the conference, there was a meeting of the USDA National Animal Disaster Committee, which consists of representatives from the AVMA, USDA, HSUS, American Humane Association, United Animal Nations, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Code-3, and Missing Pet Network volunteers.

stranded pigs fall to their death when barn roof collapses
Pigs on a hot tin roof: Their survival fleeting, these hogs fell to their death when the roof of this barn collapsed. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Tom McGinn)

The disaster committee reached consensus on some key issues. The participating attendees have agreed to use of the Incident Command System, a method of coordinating command, planning, logistics, operations, and administration during a disaster. The committee agreed to design an Incident Command System organizational structure chart for animal-related organizations to avoid the potential for confusion and overlapping of duties. Incident command training was included in the conference. The committee will set standards for participation in disaster relief. It was decided that the roles in the organization can be filled by anyone, from any organization that meets the predetermined requirements.

Dr. Lovern will present position descriptions (written by the National Disaster Medical System) to be used for the committee's organizational chart. She will also provide the committee with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines on vaccinations (already employed by VMAT members) to be used as recommendations for all animal care and rescue groups.

The National Animal Disaster Committee endorsed the USDA Missing Pet Network during all disasters, and named it as the only site people would be referred to during disasters (www.missingpet.net).

In the time of the Great Flood, the responsibility for the welfare of all animals rested squarely on the shoulders of one person. Today, there is not one Noah, but many, and today's arks take myriad forms. The National Animal Disaster Conference 2000 defined how animal disasters will be mitigated by giving a forum to the ark builders of the future.