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A Roll Call of Hurricanes on Her Resume

Debra Parsons-Drake spent many years in the corporate world before she gave in to her new calling: helping animals. She’d long felt drawn to animal work, and after some soul-searching, she ended up at a Florida shelter. Within seven months, she’d become the executive director. “Please,” she thought when she got the job, “just give me a year to get things in order before we get hit.” No such luck: Hurricane Georges hit during her first year, and she had to learn the ropes fast. Later she helped steer the shelter through the series of storms (Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jean) that hit the state in 2004, and she became a recognized leader among Florida’s animal disaster responders. Her experience led to an invitation to help manage emergency sheltering operations at the Forrest County Multi Purpose Center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and most recently to a position at The HSUS. Animal Sheltering talked to the new Director of Disaster Sheltering about her experiences during Katrina and her goals for the future.

As Debra Parsons-Drake completed a double reunion in Hattiesburg, the dogs who were heading home expressed their appreciation. JENNIFER HOBGOOD/HSUS
What was Hattiesburg like in comparison to your work in prior hurricanes?

Where I had been so proud of myself for taking in 650 animals [in two weeks] in Florida, with an infrastructure in place, in Hattiesburg we took in about 1,650 in four weeks and we didn’t have an infrastructure in place. It was not an existing staff of experienced animal care people; this was predominantly volunteers. In the early days we had some experienced personnel, but it was a massive accommodation. I can’t imagine having been in Louisiana.

How do you feel about the experience now?

You hate to say that disaster work was exhilarating. It was stressful, it was scary, it was sometimes overwhelming. But once we got through it, you look back in retrospect and say, “How can I ever go back to living a normal existence?” Because there is so much satisfaction in what was done right—and so much room for improvement that you can’t quit now. You have to continue on to take what you’ve learned to help make it better.

How did this new job come about?

I was blessed that halfway through Katrina, Laura Bevan [director of The HSUS Southeast Regional Office and incident commander at the response site in Hattiesburg] said, “You can’t go home,” and I said, “I have to go home; I have to get a job,” and she said, “We’ll put you under contract until this is done so I can keep you!” And that’s really where it started. So I will be working with shelters to help mitigate damage, to help set them up so that they’ve got evacuation programs and know what they need to do, and working to get more [human] shelters out there that are friendly to pets. [I’ll also be] teaching the DART training, teaching the emergency animal sheltering components. I’m looking at a rather diversified position. And we’re still doing a lot of damage assessment in Louisiana and Mississippi for the funding component of Katrina.

What do the shelters on the Gulf Coast still need that other shelters can help with?

At some point reality is going to have to set in. We have taken probably 15,000 animals out of the Gulf Coast region and plastered them all over this country. So everybody, even those people who were not dealing with overpopulation, is now dealing with overpopulation. And as a result of Hurricane Katrina, there are hundreds upon hundreds of puppies and kittens that are coming into this world, as a result of fences being down and animals running loose. The biggest thing that needs to come out of this is that people need to understand that spaying and neutering is critical. A spay/neuter program is something that every community should be working towards. You can’t just keep throwing money at the problem of overpopulation without going to the root of the problem, which is uncontrolled breeding. HSUS is working with shelters there to provide them information on how to do their jobs better. We’re working with them to help increase and improve their capacity. You have to work within the system. So [we need to encourage people] to recognize the need for spay and neuter and to realize that animals are not just a possession that can be easily replaced. We need to make them think of the animals as being part of the family.

What are some things you’ve learned from Katrina about how organizations like The HSUS should improve their response to the next major disaster?

Oh, there are many, many things that we can do to improve, but there are many things that can be done at a state level to improve, and there are things that can be done at a national level to improve. You are going to always be growing and finding different ways to do things. I think the interagency cooperation is a wonderful thing. We need to strive to build long-term relationships with other agencies. I think much of what is being done needs to be standardized. Having six agencies working all with their own different sets of protocols and policies and procedures makes it a little difficult. … The drudgery of the paper trail for animals needs to be paramount in everybody’s mind—tracking these animals, keeping good, effective records. I think everybody was extraordinary in their response to the storm, and I think everyone realizes where their shortcomings are. And we all need to work on this.


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