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Providing Shelter from the Storms... and the Fires and the Earthquakes

Whether they’re local Red Cross employees or municipal managers, officials who are used to preparing humans for potential disasters are discovering the benefits of linking up with animal shelters to protect pets, too

Whether they’re local Red Cross employees or municipal managers, officials who are used to preparing humans for potential disasters are discovering the benefits of linking up with animal shelters to protect pets, too

After a fire broke out and raged through their home, Smokey the cat and his human family suddenly had no house and no possessions. The unyielding flames and smoke took everything they had once called their own.

No one ever expects this to happen, but it does, often without warning.

Fortunately, the family found shelter and was able to get on the road to recovery, but with one change—no more Smokey. Because the family had no plans for Smokey in the event of an emergency, the cat became the first challenge for the new Pet Safe Task Force, a disaster and emergency relief program coordinated by the American Red Cross in Nassau County, New York.

The task force mobilized, and one of the participating animal shelters housed Smokey for a month to allow his family time to make arrangements for his return. But even after the month had gone by, the family could no longer provide the care Smokey needed and agreed the shelter should put him up for adoption. While the story did have a happy ending—with Smokey going to a new loving home—the cat might still be with his original family today if an emergency plan had been in place prior to the fire.

The Pet Safe Task Force is just one of a growing number of programs around the country focusing on animals in crisis. In light of current events, many communities are just now beginning to understand the importance of contingency planning. But, as Susan Hassett points out, small-scale catastrophes can be just as devastating to pets as a hurricane or a terrorist attack. “It doesn’t have to be some big event, like what happened in the city [on September 11],” says Hassett, executive director of the Town of North Hempstead Animal Shelter, one of 13 organizations participating in the program. “Even the small things, like a house fire, affect animals.”

Whether they are small-scale family escape plans or comprehensive citywide responses, all animal-related disaster preparations share the same goal: to treat pets as family members requiring rescue and safe harbor.

It was in that spirit that Pet Safe was formed in September 1999, when Hurricane Floyd threatened Long Island’s North Shore and several families declined to evacuate the area after learning they couldn’t bring their pets with them to the local Red Cross shelter. Those incidents were a real eye-opener to Nancy Lynch, a board member of the Nassau County chapter of the Red Cross and the creator of the Pet Safe program.

“People are so distraught in those times,” says Lynch, who also is co-chair of the task force. “The last thing you want to have them do is relinquish their pet. If we can help in that regard, then it’s all worth it.”

Since health and safety regulations have historically prevented the American Red Cross from accepting pets in its disaster shelters, displaced people needing temporary shelter for an animal during an emergency can face a nearly impossible task. Pet Safe works to solve that problem. In cooperation with local animal shelters, emergency management agencies, and veterinary and animal control associations, the Red Cross’s Nassau County chapter addresses the sheltering and medical needs of pets, relieving the pressure on pet guardians to find housing and administer care in an emergency. Lynch says what makes this program stand out is that it provides disaster and emergency services for all of Nassau County, not just one city or municipality. It is unique within the state of New York and is one of the first of its kind created by any American Red Cross chapter.

Besides the American Red Cross in Nassau County and the Town of North Hempstead Animal Shelter, the Pet Safe program includes the Nassau County Office of Emergency Management, the New York State Animal Control Association, the Nassau/Suffolk Horseman’s Association, Bide-A-Wee Animal Shelter, Hempstead Animal Shelter, Glen Cove Animal Shelter, the New York State Humane Society, North Shore Animal League America, the Long Island Veterinary Medical Association, Oyster Bay Animal Shelter, and Long Beach Animal Shelter.

The scale of the efforts helps the task force be that much more effective, says Lynch. “By having so many different groups involved, and because this is actually a countywide plan,” she says, “those different groups give us access to places we otherwise wouldn’t have access to, like [behind] police lines.”

In Hawaii, a Refuge for All

In Hawaii, collaboration among public and private agencies has resulted in an emergency shelter for all creatures—the Kauai Humane Society (KHS) was recently designated as a place of refuge for both the two- and four-legged during times of disaster, says Becky Rhoades, DVM, KHS’s executive director. The humane society’s new 30,000-square-foot building has been approved for both uses—a measure that Rhoades says gives people peace of mind, knowing that all members of their family will be safe in an emergency.

In granting this status to KHS’s new building, the Hawaii State Chapter of the American Red Cross and Hawaii State Civil Defense have made it the first in the country to be certified for dual usage in times of emergency. Rhoades says the biggest challenge everyone faces during a real disaster is that there aren’t enough shelters for people. The contingency plans for the new shelter are a way to help with that problem, she says, while also providing for people’s animals.

The building took six years to complete and can hold about 300 to 400 people in the basement, says Rhoades. If disaster strikes, the Red Cross will take over this “people” shelter area, filling the open basement floor with cots. The basement already has two full bathrooms, and KHS is also equipped with its own water well and a generator that can be used during emergencies.

The humane society has designated upstairs hallways as the place to house people’s pets in temporary crates; the arrangement provides adequate separation between people and animals to meet Red Cross health and safety regulations.

Because the building is so new, KHS hasn’t yet moved forward with actual volunteer and disaster planning, but Rhoades expects to have such a plan in place by the next hurricane season.

The unusual arrangement has increased public support for the shelter, says Rhoades. “The community has been really positive towards what we are doing,” she says. “The local government, the mayor, everyone has been totally responsive. It’s a real animal-loving community. This is also a way to give back to the community and justify the dollars spent on the new building.”

A Safety Net in the Village Hall

Back on the mainland, an Illinois community has also discovered that the way to many residents’ hearts is through their pets: The village of Glencoe has initiated a “pet passport” program that allows village officials and rescue workers easy access to information on residents’ pets in times of an emergency.

Glencoe’s residents have their pets’ pictures taken and then complete a form that requests extensive information on the animal, including any emergency contacts and details about medical needs. This information is kept by the village for use in an emergency. In return, the animal is given his or her own “passport”—a special card containing the animal’s individual identification number—to be kept with the pet’s emergency supplies or on the pet’s crate. Glencoe’s public safety department is also training workers in animal CPR and asking pet guardians to keep emergency kits complete with pet medical supplies, food, a crate, and a collar.

The program grew out of Y2K preparations but was shifted into high gear after the September 11 attacks. “I felt there was a real need for that sense of community this program brings,” says Katie Sweeney, Glencoe’s community service and animal control officer. “The information we had before this program wasn’t enough if we were going to be responsible for people’s pets in times of an emergency or disaster.”

In such times, residents’ pets will be sheltered and taken care of in the heated basement of the Village Hall. The free-of-charge program is proving a big success with residents, some of whom have already signed their pets up.

“The community has reacted very favorably to the whole thing,” says Sweeney. “People want that reassurance that their animals are going to be taken care of.”

The programs in Glencoe, Kauai, and Long Island all serve to teach the public about the importance of disaster preparation, stressing that pet guardians need to be prepared in case the unforeseen occurs.

“The key message we’re trying to get out is for people to take their pets with them,” says Hassett. “It puts the rescue people’s lives in danger twice when they have to go back for people’s pets.”

Setting up a coordinated disaster prevention program is no cakewalk. Hassett says she thought it would be easier because so many of the groups involved share the goal of helping animals. She soon came to find out that different people and groups had different agendas and management methods in mind, causing some headaches and confrontations. Meetings between the Red Cross and humane groups were slow going, says Lynch; the program never seemed like it would see the light of day.

“A big stumbling block to getting started was people’s egos and who would be in charge,” says Hassett. “The Red Cross became the glue that held everything together, but the key to getting the program going was the idea that we’re all in this together.”

The most important thing people can take from community disaster plans is the need to develop their own emergency plans for pets, says Lynch. And shelters in the area are providing pet owners with the resources to do so; the Town of North Hempstead Animal Shelter, for instance, is now giving out disaster preparation brochures with each animal it adopts out, in addition to posting flyers in area dog parks.

“People need to be aware of what they can do,” says Lynch. “The building block to any disaster preparation plan is that every pet owner should have their own plans in place.”

Smokey can attest to that.


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