What Happens to Pets of the Homeless in the Event of a National Disaster?
By Devin Morrissey
Natural disasters can devastate areas, force people from their homes, and result in massive evacuations. But evacuating from a disaster can be a challenge for the homeless who have to rely on public transportation or may have no transportation at all. When the homeless have pets, that evacuation becomes even more complicated.
Thankfully, laws have changed to allow pets inside disaster shelters, but helping the pets of the homeless is still a big job when a disaster strikes.
Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina
The chaos that ensued surrounding pet evacuations during Hurricane Katrina has shaped how we handle evacuating pets in natural disasters. Many evacuation plans during Hurricane Katrina didn’t account for the process of evacuating pets with their owners. Pets aren’t allowed in federal disaster relief rescue vehicles, and the Red Cross shelters prohibited any pets except for service animals. When some people couldn’t evacuate with their pets, they remained behind with their pets and some of the pet owners died as a result.
Pet owners were faced with a horrible choice. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that approximately 50,000 pets may have been left behind during Hurricane Katrina. Many pets died and many others were injured. Because over 60 percent of United States households have at least one pet, the results of Hurricane Katrina highlighted the importance of developing disaster plans that accounted for evacuating both pets and their owners.
The PETS Act and Natural Disaster Evacuation
The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006 (the PETS Act) is one solution the Federal government identified to better facilitate pet evacuation. President Bush signed the Act into Law in October of 2006, making important changes to how pets are handled in evacuations, disaster shelters, and more.
The PETS Act helps to ensure that both state and local emergency plans accommodate people who have pets. This is particularly important for homeless people and their pets, since they are more likely to depend on disaster shelters and have fewer resources, like the ability to pay for a hotel or travel to stay with family.
Under the PETS Act, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has the authority to rescue, care for, and shelter both people who have service animals as well as those who have pets. This Act allows FEMA to also care for the pets themselves, whereas previously the pets would have been turned away from shelters and emergency resources.
This Act goes into operation as soon as a natural disaster is declared a Federal disaster and is designed to reimburse state and local governments for the costs they incur in rescuing and sheltering pets during the disaster. Private nonprofit groups cannot be reimbursed directly for their role in caring for pets during a disaster.
Pets of the Homeless is often asked about how it helps during natural disasters. Because the PETS Act funds state and local governments, it allows those agencies to handle the pet disaster relief, freeing up the funds of Pets of the Homeless to help the homeless and their pets who need us on a daily basis.
Additional Ways Pets Get Help
While the PETS Act has made significant changes in evacuating and sheltering pets with their owners, it’s still important to get information out to the homeless as a natural disaster approaches. Emergency management specialists can contribute to the success of an evacuation through careful planning and preparation. They can also maintain relationships with local organizers, develop trainings, and work to ensure that all emergency resources and organizations work together cohesively for the best possible results.
Similarly, community health nurses and other medical professionals may be responsible for coordinating emergency preparedness measures during a natural disaster. They can work to reach the homeless with information about the resources available to them and their pets during the disaster. By encouraging early evacuation and connecting the homeless with any resources they may need, such as transportation, community health nurses play an important role in keeping an evacuation organized and efficient.
Communities can also help the homeless to prepare for an emergency by creating emergency kits. For the homeless, a kit could consist of items such as a blanket, a radio and batteries, a flashlight, and food (plus pet food) and water. With the radio, the homeless could stay up to date on evacuation plans and procedures. Communities can create these kits, store them in backpacks so that they’re mobile, and have them ready to distribute to the homeless before a natural disaster. The homeless can rely on these kits while living in a car or on the streets, and can easily bring the kits with them to evacuation centers.
The best way communities can help the pets of the homeless is to have a plan in place that incorporates outreach, evacuation methods that accommodate the pets, and shelters that welcome both pets and their animals. Natural disasters can be devastating for everyone in their path, but the homeless and their pets are particularly vulnerable and need coordinated support from the community.