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Expecting the unexpected

Smart disaster planning for rescue groups

From Animal Sheltering magazine September/October 2014

 You won’t always know when fires or floods will strike, but having a plan in place will help you and your animals get ahead of the weather. If you’re in a coastal area or other zone prone to storms, it’s smart to partner with an organization farther inland so that you’ll have a place to take animals in the case of an evacuation.Your computer could be destroyed by weather (or feline) disasters. But keeping duplicate foster and veterinary records on a flash drive and stored in “the cloud” means you’ll always have a backup.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, floods, earthquakes—those are just some of the disasters that animal welfare groups have had to deal with in the past year. If something happened and you had to leave your home in five minutes, would you be prepared? Who would take care of your animals? Where would you go? You now have four minutes and 55 seconds to decide.

While sudden disaster will likely send your heart racing, having a plan already in place will enable you to take quick, decisive action.

If animal welfare groups weren’t thinking about the issue before the summer of 2005, they certainly were after. During Hurricane Katrina, many people refused to evacuate their homes because they couldn’t take their pets with them. Shelters and rescues from around the country descended on the Gulf Coast to help. In the wake of the disaster, Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act in 2006, which requires states seeking assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to account for pets in their plans for evacuating residents facing disasters.

Yet while disaster preparedness is an integral part of operations, few rescue groups have a plan in place. You may have only a few animals in your care, but do you know what you’d do with them if you suddenly had to leave? No one thinks a disaster will happen to them, until it does. Having a disaster plan ready will help ensure that your organization keeps its animals safe and sound, no matter what comes your way.

According to Wanda Merling, senior manager of disaster response for The HSUS, disaster preparation entails thinking about the worst-case scenario and figuring out beforehand how you’re going to handle it. It’s smaller emergencies that are more likely to occur, but if you’re prepared for the worst, you’ll be ready to handle anything.

Out of the blue

What types of disasters should you prepare for? Do you live in an area with a high potential for hurricanes? Or tornadoes? Or ice storms? Look at your setting, suggests Lori Trahan, board member and co-chair of the disaster committee for Good Mews Animal Foundation in Marietta, Ga. “Every rescue really has to look at their own environment and see what is likely to happen.”

For example, Merling suggests that rescues located in an area with high hurricane potential should partner with a shelter or boarding facility about 100 miles away, preferably inland so they’ll be less likely to be as impacted by the storm. It’s also a good idea to partner with another rescue group outside of your area in case you need emergency temporary placement for the animals (and perhaps the people!) in your organization. Have crates and carriers ready to go so that you’re not running around when the winds start howling, trying to find enough for transport. Keep a copy of all your records either online or on a flash drive that’s backed up on a regular basis and kept in a safe, yet easily accessible location. Shelters and rescues that are doing most of their record-keeping on paper might want to consider implementing a plan to migrate at least their most important data to a cloud server, which is easily accessible from a remote location and mitigates the need to periodically back up essential data.

Merling notes that you can’t be over-prepared and encourages organizations to think both big and small. “The small things can hurt you more sometimes than the big things,” she says. For example, if you have a facility where you hold animals, how would you deal with a water main break? Have a plan for where you can get potable water. What if you have a power outage in the dead of winter? Have a plan for keeping the animals warm. And remember, some disasters can be small and human: What if one of your highest-volume foster care people has to be hospitalized for a long period of time? If you plan ahead for these situations, you can avoid a disaster down the road.

Foster-based rescues should make sure that fosterers have only the number of animals that they would be able to take with them should they need to evacuate, or have a transport agreement with someone nearby, according to Merling. Trahan suggests a clear way to set your limits: Can you fit all your animals in your vehicle? “Because more times than not,” Merling says, “if a disaster is going to happen, you only have 15 minutes to get out of your home.”

What to prepare

It’s important to have emergency kits for each animal in your home. These should be ready to go, and should contain supplies to sustain them for approximately 72 hours to a week. This means food, water, bowls, a can opener (for pop tops that fail), leashes, collars, crates, medication, veterinarian information, veterinary records and microchip information.

Ask veterinarians for extra medication for your disaster preparation kit. Merling finds that veterinarians are generally understanding about providing extra medication for chronically ill pets if they know it’s for disaster preparation. If you have a foster dog, you may want to consider bringing a muzzle, because even the friendliest of dogs in a strange and stressful situation may bite. Packing a comfort item like a loved toy or blanket may help pets cope with the stress of strange sounds, smells and changes in general.

Trahan created medical kits for every member of her rescue group’s disaster committee, plus a few volunteers who had stepped forward. “So we put together medical kits with all the standard medications at the shelter, and then we also put together some specialized kits because we have some really special-needs cats. And every member of the disaster committee has been assigned one of those disaster kits. Each person is responsible for maintaining their kits, making sure their medications stay up to date, so if something were to happen, all the cats would be taken care of medically.”

Merling notes that in preparing for disasters, it’s important to provide fosterers with a copy of all the animal’s records. This prepares for several possible situations: if a trip to the emergency veterinarian is necessary, if a pet needs to be boarded for any reason or if they have to cross state lines, as most states require proof that a pet is healthy. Find out which hotels near you and near your potential evacuation partner are pet-friendly and record their requirements and limitations for bringing pets. And don’t forget to make a plan for what happens after the evacuation—what will you do if people aren’t allowed back in their homes, and there’s no long-term place for the foster animals to stay?

For smaller emergencies, Tiana Nelson, founder and director of Paws & Co. Adoptions in Denver, has a plan for situations that come up on a one-off basis, such as a medical emergency. Her group has a list of emergency fosterers it can use, even if for only a couple of days. “The fact that we don’t have a shelter makes it important to have that backup piece in place,” she says.

Prevention is the best preparation

Nelson finds that her group’s regular procedures for animal records and care also serve as a great line of defense in a disaster. From ensuring all animals have the proper vaccines in case they need to be boarded, to microchipping and putting identification on the animals in case they get lost, to having extra supplies on hand, Nelson makes certain that her rescue group’s animals are ready to be evacuated at a moment’s notice. “The prevention piece is something we do on a daily basis, and it’s part of how our culture operates,” she says. While these defined protocols are primarily in place for the sake of smooth, regular operations, they will serve you well in a disaster.

Nelson notes that prevention also applies to the people on her team. “We always keep our contact list up to date; we have the most current phone numbers and emails for everyone; we have who’s in charge of what—our veterinary partners and additional [veterinarians] that we could use in case of emergency.” She also has several means of communicating with all her foster providers and volunteers in case of an emergency. “For example, we have an email newsletter we can format, we have a Facebook page with all our volunteers and fosters on it, so that’s an easy way to put something out on a mass level so people feel like they have some support.”

Starting out

When Trahan set out to write the disaster plan for Good Mews, her first stop was looking at the county’s emergency operations plan to see what type of disasters the larger community was planning for. It’s important to understand the county’s plan for animals in a disaster to get a sense of what you need to do to prepare. It’s just as important to know what the overall animal plan is for your state, so you know who to contact at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in case of an emergency. Moreover, the EOC will want to know how many animals have been impacted by any disaster, so that it can better prepare for the next one.

Find out the lead agency for the animal component so you know whom to call for help; you can find this information easily with a quick Internet search for your local EOC. Moreover, Merling recommends that any leader of a disaster plan go through a basic incident command course. This will enable rescues to understand the commands coming from the state or county level, and provide insight into the basic structure of disaster plan implementation. These online courses from FEMA are free.

Written SOPs are essential. Your SOPs should include an evacuation plan, as well as plans specific to the types of disasters that have previously occurred in your area."

Getting involved with others in your community is important, too. Talk to other animal welfare organizations and find out what their plans look like. Solicit the advice of others in the community—the local library, the local animal shelter—and ask what has and hasn’t worked for them. It’s also a good idea to practice evacuation and emergency sheltering drills with your local animal shelter.

Once you know which plans you need to have in place, writing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) is essential. Your SOPs should include an evacuation plan, as well as plans specific to the types of disasters that have previously occurred in your area. So if you’re in an area that gets frequent hurricanes, you’ll want to make sure you can get all your animals out of harm’s way. That may mean partnering with a trucking company that has a climate-controlled vehicle readily accessible, or assigning each animal to a designated team leader or volunteer who will be responsible for their transport. Where can you go quickly to get portable water storage for potable water and a generator for electricity?

Decide who is in charge of any disaster plan, Merling notes; otherwise, you end up with too many cooks in the kitchen. Once your SOPs are in place, make sure everyone understands their own role. Set protocols for how to contact all of your foster homes and what happens if you can’t reach them. Trahan, for example, has a phone tree with the last people on the list calling her to close the loop and ensure everyone has received the message. Consider designating a meeting point to connect with fosterers after an evacuation to ensure that everyone is accounted for and to pass along any further instructions.

And don’t become frustrated if it feels like a never-ending exercise. Good Mews has been building its disaster plan for two years, Trahan says, and it’s still a work in progress and very much a piecemeal process. “It becomes overwhelming if you try to take every disaster at once, so ... we have found that it’s better for us if we look at one disaster at a time.”

Given the new crises that may arise, and the changes that may happen within the community or the organization, a disaster plan is “something that’s never complete. If you think it’s complete, then you haven’t done it right,” she says. There will always be more scenarios to plan for. But take heart in knowing that some degree of preparedness is better than none.

About the Author

Abby Volin is the former Public Policy Manager for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), where she focused on policies and programs that protect pets and keep them in their homes. In her previous role at HSUS she developed programs specifically designed to meet the unique needs and challenges experienced by rescue groups. Prior to joining The HSUS, Abby worked as a litigator and was involved of all aspects of operating a rescue group in her spare time.