Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans-area residents were fairly lackadaisical about storms. Many had never left town before a storm and had prepared mainly by boarding up windows, buying extra water, liquor, batteries and charcoal for the grill and braced themselves for a few days without electricity.
Katrina changed all that. We learned we need to heed the warnings, pack up important papers, irreplaceable photos, more than a weekend's worth of clothes and get our families to safety -- that includes pets.
"The key to survival during a disaster for you and your animals is to be as prepared as possible before the storm hits," says Randy Covey, director of disaster services for The Humane Society of the United States. "Take the time to create a plan and assemble an emergency kit for you and your pet. By taking these steps now, you will greatly increase your pet's chances of survival."
We saw firsthand after Katrina, the problems caused by pets left behind when their owners evacuated as well as the fate of pets whose owners stayed in New Orleans with them but could not take them on rescue boats after the flooding.
The Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LA/SPCA) evacuated the 263 animals it had in its New Orleans shelter to Houston three days before Katrina made landfall. Its shelter in the Ninth Ward was swamped with 8 feet of water. The group then set up a temporary shelter in Gonzales and assembled a team to rescue thousands of animals trapped in homes in flooded areas, those found roaming the streets or pets that had been taken to the emergency shelter at the Louisiana Superdome. Within eight weeks after the storm, the group had taken 8,500 animals into the temporary shelter. Of those, between 15 and 20 percent were reunited with their owners.
"The Louisiana SPCA is the only humane organization/animal shelter to ever face such an extreme challenge," says Laura Maloney, CEO of LA/SPCA. "After evacuating and losing our home in the Ninth Ward, we established the world's largest rescue effort ever, opened a second temporary shelter in New Orleans under difficult conditions, and proposed and lobbied for a tough pet disaster bill."
Because the LA/SPCA's facilities were destroyed in the storm, the group has opened a 21,600-square-foot state-of-the-art Animal Care and Rescue Center (ARCC) on the West Bank to shelter animals without homes and to base animal rescue operations and cruelty investigations. Adoptions will be staged out of this facility until another new building is completed.
The new shelter and ARCC, however, does not mean it's safe to leave your pets behind when you evacuate. Both the LA/SPCA and the Humane Society stress that pet owners need to be responsible for the well-being of their pets and plan for their evacuation just as they would the rest of their family. A pet evacuation kit should include:
• Enough food for three to five days per pet, stored in an airtight, waterproof container, plus a can opener, if needed.
• An adequate supply of drinking water.
• Bowls for the pet to eat and drink from.
• Current photos and physical descriptions of your pets.
• Name and number of your veterinarian, vaccination and medical records, animal first-aid supplies (consult your veterinarian about what to include) and any medications they are taking.
• Items such as favorite toys, chew bones and a blanket will make your pet feel secure.
• Small garbage bags for picking up waste and a roll of paper towels to clean up messes.
• A leash and harness for each dog, litter and a litter box for cats; and a sturdy carrier for each pet.
• A list of pet-friendly hotels and motels, if you choose to evacuate to a hotel, or a list of facilities outside the danger area that can board your pet during the evacuation.
• In addition to the kit, make sure your pet is equipped with visible identification or have them microchipped in advance.
• Place the kit in a convenient spot in case you must leave quickly. Make plans to have a neighbor or friend evacuate your pets if you are away when an emergency strikes.