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A Recipe for Disasters

Last summer, communities all over the state of Florida battened down the hatches, put their disaster plans into effect, and rode out the worst series of storms to hit a single state since Texas was slammed in the late 1800s. The hurricanes—Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne—galloped in one after another, like a tribe of pillaging warlords. 

Last summer, communities all over the state of Florida battened down the hatches, put their disaster plans into effect, and rode out the worst series of storms to hit a single state since Texas was slammed in the late 1800s. The hurricanes—Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne—galloped in one after another, like a tribe of pillaging warlords. 

Florida residents spent nearly two months holding their collective breath; in between efforts to assess damages from the last storm, they eyed the tropical waters of the Atlantic with fear of what might come next. Their suspicions were warranted: Residents barely had a moment to breathe after one storm fizzled before the next came whirling in, often undoing whatever repairs they’d managed to make in the brief respite between gales.

The destruction that began on August 13 with Charley’s landfall north of Captiva Island ended in late September when Jeanne finally subsided into a tropical depression over Georgia. Over 100 people were killed and 25,000 homes were destroyed—and that was just in Florida. Ivan also did massive damage to the Alabama coast, and the series of storms caused more than 3,000 deaths overall, most of them from Jeanne’s battering of Haiti. Damage estimates were in the tens of billions.

As people all over the state grieved the loss of life, property, and livelihood, and as they worried about how to apply for disaster relief and where to live during reconstruction, disaster response teams were already hard at work. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state-based services took the lead in addressing the needs of human victims, animal control agencies, humane societies, and disaster relief personnel from all over the country came together to help animal victims find food, water, shelter—and in many cases, their human guardians.

Nobody Expects the Unexpected

In his sci-fi novel Life, the Universe, and Everything, writer Douglas Adams used the acronym SEP to describe “something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s Somebody Else’s Problem.”

Adams amusingly showed how an enormous crisis can go untended to solely because everyone believes it’s someone else’s job to deal with it. In our society, SEPs—problems that aren’t addressed because we fail to recognize them as our own—are everywhere. The destruction people are wreaking on the environment is one example, with the loss of species and livable habitats increasing at frightening rates.

On a less global scale, every day at work, shelter folks deal with another SEP: the homeless animal problem that most citizens agree is tragic and unnecessary and yet don’t see as their own.

Even within a shelter, certain things can become SEPs—or, more frequently, PTDWLs: Problems To Deal With Later. The thing about SEPs and PTDWLs, though, is that by the time you recognize one as your own and decide to deal with it, the crisis has often become so enormous that it threatens to consume you.

Until it appears on your doorstep, a disaster seems like an SEP. As the Monty Python boys put it in one of their famous sketches, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”—and nobody expects the earthquake or the terrorist attack or the mudslide or the hailstorm that, unprepared for, can wreak havoc on the function of an animal shelter, preventing it from fulfilling its mission of aiding people and animals in crisis.

The citizens of Florida had some warning about what was about to hit their coastlines (and hit them, and hit them, and hit them). But while weather forecasters were able to give them an idea of where the storms would hit and how hard, not all of the predictions were accurate—and they didn’t make the experience any less frightening.

“The first hurricane was very long,” says Joan Carlson, executive director of the Humane Society of Vero Beach & Indian River County. “It lasted 24 hours. Once the electricity went off, it was awful, the anticipation of not knowing. How long it would be, how bad the wind would be, how much damage there would be. You could hear things coming off the roof and it was scary.”

But, Carlson says, her organization was prepared. They had supplies, they had staff on site ready to help, and they had support systems in place for the staff who worked long hours responding to the needs of the community. The storm even allowed for some nice moments—in the midst of all the stress and fear, she says, her staff really bonded in their work.

“That was the nice thing—the sense of community,” she says. “Everyone was there together and helping each other and the animals were fine.”

Having a plan can help panicked individuals come together as a team to turn fear and chaos into an ordered response.

What made that positive outcome possible is that Carlson and her staff had chosen, some time ago, not to regard disasters as SEPs or PTDWLs. They had looked at Florida’s long history of getting battered by hurricanes and had sensibly taken the time, long in advance of the storms, to develop a disaster plan. For the Humane Society of Vero Beach and many other Florida animal protection groups, it was that proactive approach that helped them weather the storms.

Disasters can take all forms, from crises caused by extreme weather to the manmade horrors of terrorism and war. They’ll require different responses from animal protection groups, depending on what kinds of animal problems the community experiences and how feasible it is to work in the circumstances that follow the event. But having a plan—one that staff are familiar with, know their roles in, and practice routinely—can help panicked individuals come together as a team to turn fear and chaos into an ordered response.

Don’t Try to Work in Quicksand

In Fort Walton Beach last summer, at least one group of residents seemed to have a handle on the situation, says Dee Thompson, executive director of the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society. “The feral cats seemed to know what to do way better than most people did. The cats came through fine,” Thompson says wryly. As hurricanes began pummeling the state of Florida, the feral cats in Thompson’s beach community seemed to disappear—only to emerge unscathed once the storms were over.

Thompson is glad for the cats’ survival, of course. The amused frustration in her voice comes from the fact that the residents of local cat colonies seemed more prepared than some of the community’s human residents. “If everybody had the kind of disaster plan the cats are following, they’d all be in great shape,” she says.

Animals often know when there’s going to be a change in the weather or a geological disturbance. Before the earthquake that caused the horrific tsunami disaster in Asia last December, many animals were behaving strangely—elephants sought higher ground, dogs refused to go outside, and birds flew for their lives.

Most industrialized humans don’t have those natural instincts anymore. We may have had them once, but we’ve lost them through centuries of evolution, indoor living, and technological advances that, for better and for worse, have done a good job of shielding us from signals from the natural world. But we’ve tried to compensate: We’ve designed radar systems that can predict the weather, homes that can withstand high winds and water, and vehicles that can get us out of harm’s way quickly. And more importantly, as thinkers we can actually do what Thompson jokes the cats did: plan ahead.

In Florida, says Laura Bevan, “it was night and day between the counties that had a plan and implemented it and worked it, and those that didn’t. [For those who had a plan,] it was still a disaster, but things happened very quickly—assistance got in and things got fixed.”

Bevan, the director of The HSUS’s Southeast Regional Office in Tallahassee, Florida, helped set up a response/rescue center in Punta Gorda and also helped coordinate the efforts of various organizations and agencies. It was far easier for responders to provide help to those places that knew what they needed and how to ask for it, she says. “In those counties that didn’t have much of a plan or had no plan, that had never thought about what might happen, it was like trying to work in quicksand in the beginning, and they ended up being much further behind than the other counties,” says Bevan.

Bevan, who’s assisted in relief efforts in at least 15 disasters, ranging from hurricanes to wildfires, says a good plan is all about anticipating possibilities. That old adage from Saturday morning cartoons is apt: Knowing is half the battle. “Your plan should answer all of the big questions,” says Bevan. “What are you going to do if your shelter is impacted? Where are you going to have your base of operations? What can you use instead of what you usually use? Where are you going to stockpile supplies, and what are you going to need?”

To anticipate what you’ll do in a crisis, you first have to have a strong grip on your day-to-day operations. All of your systems will be put to the test by a disaster, so the ones that don’t work so well under normal circumstances may fall apart completely when people get stressed out and harried and everything starts happening at once.

Whatever hairline cracks exist in your organization’s functionality—whether it’s a haphazard volunteer program or inadequate cleaning procedures—will start opening into wide chasms when dealing with the intensity of a disaster situation, so one of the best things you can do to prepare is make sure your everyday processes are as functional and efficient as possible.

The needs of every shelter and every community will vary; disaster plans are never one-size-fits-all. You have to spend time evaluating the weaknesses of your physical facilities and your general operations. Where are you vulnerable? What do you depend on? What would you have to fall back on if certain essentials were suddenly cut off—if roads were flooded, if telephone lines were down—and no outside help could get to you?

Hopefully that will never happen. But the plan you come up with for your organization should allow you to exist in a safe little cocoon of preparedness in case you’re on your own for a period of time after the disaster occurs.

Needing help is not, in itself, a failure, many point out. Almost everyone is going to need some kind of outside help when a disaster strikes, and when you need help, it takes real courage and responsibility to admit that; not admitting it can create its own problems.

But “if you can’t look at your own shelter and say, ‘I am self-sufficient for 48 hours; I can feed and water and take care of my staff and animals for that period of time until help can arrive,’ then you’re part of the problem,” says Thompson. “Needing help is not a bad thing. But if you need it before that 48-hour period goes by, that’s a bad thing.”

Make a New Plan, Stan

Obviously you can’t overestimate the importance of a good disaster response plan. But while you’re making it, keep yourself grounded by remembering an old saying: Q: How do you make God laugh? A: Make a plan.

Keith Larson, director of Charlotte County Animal Control in Port Charlotte, found that out firsthand. His agency had a great disaster coordinator in Maureen Yuster, an employee of the county administrator’s office who had spent years molding the animal-related plan into a model of efficient, effective crisis management. Then, when the storm hit, it happened to hit Yuster’s neighborhood, stranding her there for the first three days. And her supervisors in the county office wanted her to handle some of the human-related consequences of the storm—so Yuster was pulled in two different directions.

"Once the electricity went off, it was awful, the anticipation of not knowing. How long it would be, how bad the wind would be, how much damage there would be. You could hear things coming off the roof and it was scary."
—Joan Carlson

“They’d worked on a plan for years and did a great job,” says Bevan. “The problem there was that the person who wrote the plan and worked the plan for ten years, she was told she had to do something else. It could have fallen apart because of that. … She was the only one who knew the whole plan.”

Ironically, the only way to deal with unexpected moments that force you to divert from your plan is—you guessed it—to have another plan, in case the disaster impacts the first one. You need a backup disaster coordinator to implement your procedures, in case your primary person isn’t available. You need more than one evacuation route in case the disaster—flood or tornado or whatever it might be—affects one of them.

In the case of Charlotte County, Larson had plenty of outside helpers on hand who were willing and able to pitch in; the agency was able to work its original plan so the situation didn’t fall apart. Nevertheless, Larson expects to spend some time strengthening the agency’s disaster plan so they’ll always have backup options.

“I think we need to have a couple of different people,” Larson says. “Maybe someone in my  department who can serve as coordinator, or a backup person, or a volunteer who can donate their entire time to my department. Maureen was excellent, but she was being tugged around by different departments so it made it difficult for her.”

After the crisis period was over, Larson and many other directors spent time analyzing their agencies’ and organizations’ responses to the disaster, trying to figure out what they could improve. “About three weeks after the storm was over, I sat down behind the computer and thought, ‘What did I do wrong?’ ” says Larson. “I wrote down a list and the list got really big. I had to stop because I was insulting myself.”

Time to Breathe—and Regroup

Painful as it may be, it’s that kind of honest self-analysis that has helped other shelters improve their response procedures.

Back in 1998, Debra Parsons-Drake had just become the shelter manager at Suncoast Humane Society in Englewood and was hoping against hope not to get hit with a hurricane her first year on the job. As Murphy’s Law would have it, Hurricane Georges headed right for her shelter, and Parsons-Drake had to punt. County officials were telling her that if the hurricane hit, she needed to save the strays and the quarantined animals—but that she should plan to euthanize all of the adoptables she couldn’t evacuate. “It was trial by fire,” she recalls.

In the panic that followed, Suncoast used its connections with a humane society in Orlando to evacuate all of its adoptable dogs. They did the evacuation in crates using Ryder trucks, stopping every 20 minutes to open the truck doors to give the dogs some air. It was a frantic drive to meet the Orlando Humane Society, which took the dogs.

“And then Georges never even hit us,” says Parsons-Drake. “So we ended up with real egg on our faces, having gotten rid of all our adoptable animals.”

This time, though, Parsons-Drake had a plan ready for the shelter and knew she had some time to make up her mind about evacuating. Knowing that her facility was built to withstand a category 3 hurricane, Parsons-Drake chose to stay in place rather than take her animals inland to the pole barn that serves as Suncoast’s alternate shelter in a disaster. “I felt that the animals were safer in my facility than they would have been sitting in crates in a pole barn. … So I made the executive decision to stay here, recognizing that if we did get hit we would have to be able to clean out our shelters virtually immediately.”

Her advance planning had given her the confidence to know that if Charley strengthened or moved to hit them directly, her staff would be able to evacuate smoothly. And the wisdom of past experience had taught her not to panic and instead to assess the incoming information before deciding on a course of action. As Charley approached, Parsons-Drake was in contact with other shelters and disaster responders around her region, tracking where the storm was headed, and as it turned out, the shelter took gusts of up to 125 miles per hour without sustaining any major damage.

No one wishes for a disaster to happen. But there’s a little silver lining inside the hurricane clouds: You’ll learn something new from each and every crisis. After Hurricane Andrew back in 1992, it had taken Suncoast nearly three months to get back to normal operations, says Parsons-Drake. This time it took only three and a half weeks. As destructive as hurricanes can be, Parsons-Drake has learned to take the good where she can get it—by using the experience to create a better, more complete plan.

Thompson and her staff did the same kind of regrouping in 1995. When Hurricane Opal hit, local residents on Okaloosa Island weren’t prepared; they expected to be back the next day, Thompson says. The organization ended up having to make contact with displaced owners, collect keys, and in some cases break windows in order to rescue over 150 animals who had been left behind on the island.

But Thompson says the experience was invaluable. “We were really able to prepare ourselves then. There’s no better class than life experience,” she says. “This time we went to great lengths not only to make sure we weren’t part of the problem; we wanted to be part of the solution. … We made sure we had everything ready for our own county—shelters to go to if ours was destroyed, supplies on hand, and then we started preparing for being able to go and help others.”

Among other things, their experience after Opal taught Thompson and her staff how much education the public needed. Thompson advises other shelters not to forget that, no matter how prepared they may be, there’s a whole passel of animals out there whose owners may not be as ready as the shelter is and often have no idea what to do with their pets should a disaster strike.

“Make brochures. Inundate the newspapers and whoever you can get to run them for you, letting people know,” says Thompson. “Don’t copy it on white paper; do it on something bright so that people will find it later even if they’ve shoved it in a drawer. Get information to the media, get information to places like trailer parks on how to prepare and not leaving animals behind.”

That’s what the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society did after Opal, Thompson says, and it seems the approach worked: When the rescuers visited Okaloosa Island in the wake of the 2004 storms, people had taken their animals with them.

That kind of post-disaster learning and analysis of your efforts is vital, says Kate Pullen, director of Animal Sheltering Issues at The HSUS, who also assisted in the aftermath of last year’s Florida hurricanes.

“After one of these things, once you have a chance to breathe, managers should sit down and figure out what worked well and what didn’t, what could be improved,” Pullen says. “There’s almost always something that could have been done better, and if you look at your operating procedures, you can figure out what to do differently next time.”

When Responders Are Victims

The people who work in animal shelters are amazingly giving. They already spend their days caring for homeless animals and helping people. And during a disaster, responders will likely be inundated with all kinds of creatures in need, whether it’s a hysterical pet owner who’s lost her home and her beloved animal or a dehydrated dog who’s been surviving off gulps of dirty water for days. The suffering and grief that swell up in the aftermath of a disaster like Florida’s can be overwhelming, and it’s only natural that the people trying to help will want to push themselves as hard as they can in response.

But in the midst of all this, don’t forget: You and your staff are responding to a community crisis, but you may also be victims. Many of the people helping out after the hurricanes in Florida had themselves lost everything they owned. Several facilities interviewed for this article ended up serving as temporary homes for shelter staff whose houses had been destroyed by the storms.

Every organization should make sure that staff have developed their own personal disaster plans, says Thompson. It’s good policy for the staff and the organization; since most people will feel that their families and loved ones come first, ensuring that they’ve got those issues under control will help ensure that shelter staff won’t be pulled toward home when they’re needed on site to help the animals.

“If you have your own personal plan down, then you’re really an asset to your organization,” says Thompson. “Because if you have to run around the last day finding batteries and putting food in your cupboards, that’s time you need. But if you’ve prepared a week in advance so that your family is taken care of, you’ll be able to be more of a help. And the leadership needs to be prepared so that staff will see that and follow suit.”

When the response to a disaster is in full swing, those working need to be aware of their own humanity and that of their colleagues and staff. The very strengths people bring to relief work—dedication, compassion for others’ suffering—can bring out human weaknesses like stubbornness and fear of appearing weak. The powerful sense of community that can coalesce during a disaster response can make people unwilling to stop to do “trivial” things—like eat, sleep, and breathe.

In a disaster, says Bevan, “you get into this weird world where time elongates and shortens at the same time. Each day seems like forever; on the other hand, you can never get enough done.”

It’s enough to cloud anyone’s thinking, so those in charge have to remind their staff to take breaks, says Bevan, who’s seen managers reach a state of denial about what they and their staff are experiencing.

In Florida, she says, local responders were exhausted. “Their homes were damaged or destroyed. They had no air conditioning; they had families living in the rubble of their homes,” she says. “They needed to deal with insurance and FEMA. And management was trying to run these 15-hour shifts and then send their people home to damaged houses. And pretty soon those people were dropping.”

Be Good to Yourself

Everyone wants to push themselves as hard as they can, says Bevan, who admits she’s done it herself. “After a while you start realizing, OK, I wish I could work like a dog and not stop, but it ain’t gonna happen. I ended up saying, ‘OK, I can do this if someone else will drive,’ because I knew I couldn’t drive, handle the phone, and deal with the stress of planning—it’s not going to be a good thing,” Bevan says. “I might run somebody over while I’m doing something else entirely in my brain.”

When you work yourself so hard you feel like your own little walking disaster, it's time to stop and take a nap or get a bite or just site and talk to someone for a while.

When you work yourself so hard you feel like your own little walking disaster, it’s time to stop and take a nap or get a bite or just sit and talk to someone for a while. Often you’ll be able to identify stress more clearly in the people you’re working alongside than in yourself, so you have to agree to speak up when you see people fading out—and to listen when they tell you they see you doing the same.

“You do better for other people than you do for yourself,” says Bevan. “That’s why you have to have other people around who’ll say, ‘OK, you need to take a break.’ Because for yourself, you want to keep pushing and get it done, so someone else can say when you need a moment.”

When people are prepared and taking care of each other, shared stress can bring them together in wonderful ways. And there’s something to be said for the little moments you overlook when things are calmer: In a disaster situation, there’s so much stress and fear and grief that the good moments stand out all the more indelibly.

Parsons-Drake’s shelter normally houses about 200 animals. During the aftermath of the hurricanes, Suncoast became the central location for people to come look for their lost pets; animals brought into facilities at Punta Gorda or Port Charlotte were transferred to Suncoast at the end of each day so that searching owners would know there was just one place to check. At one point the facility was housing close to 600 animals.

“It was certainly stressful having that many animals,” says Parsons-Drake. “But the feel-good part of that—and I know this is anthropomorphic but I’m gonna say it anyway—is that you would have somebody come in just devastated, looking for their dog. … And of course the animals are all going crazy, and you would watch the face on the human and it would become more and more despondent and depressed as they would walk down corridor after corridor and not see their animal, and you could see the exuberance on the animals’ faces of Somebody’s coming! Somebody’s coming! Is it them?

“And I know this is crazy, but when a person would get within three kennels of their own animal, it was like the world stood still. It was just unbelievable. The animal and the person would make eye contact and it was just like a moment in time that was frozen, where the chaos was all completely background noise. You saw the joy on the person’s face and the animal’s face as they reconnected.”


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