Sixty-three percent of Americans have a feline friend, canine companion or other type of pet, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. And when disaster strikes, most pet owners are reluctant to leave those pets behind. That’s where partnerships with local animal welfare groups can help, as they did during the 2011 Joplin, Mo., tornado, the Iowa and Memphis, Tenn., floods and other natural disasters nationally.
Through partnerships with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), American Red Cross and the Humane Society of the United States, Joplin, Iowa and Memphis received the help they needed to implement disaster preparedness and response plans that include animals.
On May 22, when the catastrophic tornado struck Joplin, animal control officers were overwhelmed, according to Martin White, an animal control officer for the city. The main objective that night was to set up a co-located animal shelter close to pet owners.
“Experience has shown us through disasters that people will not go to a shelter where they couldn’t take their animals,” he said. “So we went in with the Red Cross to set up these little animal shelters adjacent to these human shelters.”
In addition, White said the tornado was an “eye-opening” experience — one fraught with doubt. “I was very uncertain what our role would be — and how we would operate and [if we] could we operate,” he said of the destruction and response efforts.
But when natural disasters like this $2.8 billion tornado occur, it is a quandary for all parties involved, since resources must be obtained and lives — both humans and animals — are at stake. The Humane Society of Missouri handled the search and rescue, and the ASPCA did the shelter operations. But Martin said many animals were not rescued because it was unsafe for rescue workers to go into the debris and rubble.
The ASPCA is a nonprofit that “provides local and national leadership in three key areas: caring for pet parents and pets, providing positive outcomes for at-risk animals and serving victims of animal cruelty.”
“The Joplin operation was among the most challenging operations because it was so personal to me,” said Tim Rickey, senior director of the ASPCA Field Investigations and Response Team. “It was my hometown; many of my friends and family had been affected by the disaster, so that was part of it.”
Rickey, an animal recovery veteran, has led efforts after major disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Iowa floods and multiple incidents in Missouri. He was on the ground for 45 days and found that it was overwhelming: Pet owners and community members brought in more than 1,300 animals.
Further compounding the problem was handling the truckloads of donated supplies, including crates, food and leashes, without a donation management system. “It was honestly a wonderful problem to have,” said Rickey, “but it was a huge challenge for a few days and required us to bring in additional staff and secure an additional warehouse.”
Although that was a good problem, White said securing resources and funding through state, local and federal governments for some items was difficult. After the tornado, White said government’s red tape made it hard to get air conditioning units to cool down warehouses where animals were being sheltered, and it was difficult getting a site for the emergency shelter supplies.
In Memphis, the 2011 flooding and the Mississippi River overflow was somewhat reminiscent of Katrina’s aftermath. And just like Joplin, Memphis had its own problems. “We had a significant number of households that were gone to the level of flooding, and they needed a place to [leave] their animals,” said John Robinson, shelter manager for Collierville animal services.
More than 300 animals were housed in an emergency shelter that the ASPCA set up and organized through the Memphis/Shelby County Emergency Management Agency. At the time of the flood, Robinson was the deputy incident commander and oversaw the event with the ASPCA. He said the county didn’t have its own technology resources, so most of them came from the ASPCA and other partnering agencies.
“I felt like I had a coach on the sidelines the whole time while I was trying to figure out this incident,” Robinson said. “Having [the ASPCA] on hand was a huge benefit to us and for everybody in the flood area. Them having the contacts and resources, things like that, and giving us the education, having worked on so many disasters.”
With the agency’s help, all but 11 animals were reunited with their original owners in about seven weeks. “We appreciate the assistance provided to our county from the ASPCA last year,” said Shelby County, Tenn., Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr. via email. “Their volunteers, both here locally and the extensive network across the nation, saved hundreds of animals who were threatened by a history-making flood and several devastating storms.”
Although Joplin and Memphis had their own unique challenges, there are still lessons for others to learn. Becoming educated on how local, state and federal governments operate is important, said Joplin’s White. He recommends working with people who know the ins and outs of requesting resources through all levels of government.
Robinson said one lesson learned in Memphis was keeping paperwork for animals organized so they could eventually be reunited with their owners. In addition, he said preparation is key — knowing local rescue groups will help identify where animals are and provide a head count when disaster strikes.
In the future, both jurisdictions will develop animal preparedness and rescue plans. Joplin already has the funding component, which was a major hurdle, included in its plan, but is still dealing with homeless animals. “They haven’t been able to get those animals adopted because the adoption market in that community has gone down significantly,” said the ASPCA’s Rickey. And Memphis is consulting with the ASPCA on crafting a plan for implementation soon.
But what should be included in a disaster preparedness plan? The first thing, said Rickey, is for citizens to identify friends and family outside their regions who are less likely to be affected by the same disaster and ensuring that pets are properly identified. “Making sure that you tag your pets with updated information and having your pets microchipped,” he said. Also, people should consider having an emergency kit for their pets, a crate, extra leashes or any special dietary or medical supplies.
The ASPCA also provides workshops to citizens and local governments (welfare agencies and emergency management agencies). Emergency managers can promote information from the agency’s site to their communities. Rickey said the disaster response program will focus on public education and working with local communities to develop and promote disaster planning for animals.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated.