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Almost a decade ago, Hurricane Katrina ran aground in the Gulf Coast, whipsawing a great American city and leaving hundreds of communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in shambles. The human tragedy was immediately obvious, with nearly 2,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
In New Orleans and the surrounding areas, many pet owners honored evacuation orders, leaving giant food and water bowls for their animals, assuming all would be OK until they came back in a couple of days. Then the levees failed, streets flooded and power and utilities went down. National Guard troops walled off New Orleans to prevent further loss of life in a largely abandoned city, leaving pets stranded.
Soon national news networks broadcast footage of dogs clinging to rooftops and car tops. Viewers saw animals swimming vainly toward rescuers in boats, many of whom had specific instructions not to pick up animals.
With our government not having either the resolve or the capacity to help, animal advocates came to the rescue. Animal rescuers deployed by the hundreds from organizations around the country and beyond, providing food and water to pets stranded in houses, rescue boats to bring out animals and emergency shelters to take in the needy and to reunite animals with their owners.
Hurricane Katrina was a transformative moment for disaster planning for animals, and a practical, powerful example of the human-animal bond. Many residents refused evacuation orders, endangering themselves because the system would not allow them to bring their animals with them. One of the most moving stories involved a man who refused to be rescued from his floating raft if he couldn’t take his dog, because his dog was all he had left. One National Guard officer estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the people who refused to leave flood-afflicted areas did so because of their pets.
As the weeks passed, there began to be wide recognition that the failure of the government and other first responders to account for the human-animal bond had impeded the rescue effort and undermined evacuation plans.
I vowed—along with so many others—that never again would such a disaster catch the humane movement or the government responders so unprepared.
Hurricane Katrina changed our movement, and it changed The HSUS. In the years since Katrina, we’ve helped pass 20 state laws and the federal Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act to include animals in disaster plans—laws that helped transform the way all agencies respond to disasters. At The HSUS, we upgraded our field response teams not only for disasters, but for human-caused crises such as puppy mills, animal fighting operations and hoarding cases. During these last 10 years, our teams have deployed hundreds of times, saving tens of thousands of animals—often coming to the rescue in areas where local animal organizations needed a partner to help supply the resources to handle the problems.
Hurricane Katrina was transformative in other ways. Animal rescue groups, shelters and national organizations came together on an unprecedented scale to respond. As we prepare to gather in New Orleans for Animal Care Expo, I am reminded of that spirit of cooperation. In a field where we too often feel like we’re working alone or at cross-purposes, the conference brings together around 2,000 animal care experts, professionals and advocates from all over the globe.
Expo is focused on solutions and teamwork, not ideology or division—and this year, along with our many workshops to help animal advocates work smarter on a day-to-day basis, we’ll naturally also focus on coming together to ensure the fulfillment of that earlier vow: Never again. Disasters will overtake and overwhelm communities, but by pursuing smart planning and policy, we can get these communities back on their feet and make sure the animals are neither forgotten nor left behind.