Families Evacuating Pets in Hurricane Harvey Should Not Fear a Katrina Scenario

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Last Thursday, two days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall off Corpus Christi, Texas, The Victoria Advocate published a YouTube video on behalf of The Calhoun County Humane Society. The video implored the public to help empty its shelter by fostering a dog or cat.

“The ultimate goal is to get every animal out of this building and into a safe place to ride out the storm,” said shelter volunteer, Melodie Griffith. “Our building . . . is not really built for this kind of thing . . .”

According to Griffith, all shelter dogs and about 20 cats were waiting for declared fosters to pick them up, but there were a host of cats still waiting for people to offer them temporary homes. “Someone failed them before,” Griffith said. “We can’t fail them again.”

The Calhoun County Humane Society took thoughtful, measured and concrete steps to ferry their four-legged residents to safety. Regrettably, many families with pets are ill-prepared to respond to emergencies or are unaware of the federal law that protects a pet’s family status. 

Several counties along the Texas gulf coast faced mandatory evacuation orders Friday prompting families to take shelter as far away as possible from whipping winds, pelting rain and the expected six- to 12-foot storm surge. Many families undoubtedly sought refuge with their pets in brick auditoriums or school gyms.

However it is not known if or how many pets were left behind or simply not found during the tumult of evacuation. It is also not known whether any human families were turned away from safe gathering places because they showed up with their animal companions and local officials were ignorant of the law.

One only has to glance back a mere 12 years into the horrors of Hurricane Katrina to see that pets were once not legally recognized as family and, as such, were not entitled to evacuation along with their human family members. Gut wrenching scenes of first responders setting dogs adrift from lifeboats and whole families refusing airlifts from rooftops because their pets would not be allowed on board were common.

The reactions of local shelter groups and concerned congress people was swift and decisive. Working in concert with Animal Rescue New Orleans, a bi-partisan congressional effort culminated in the drafting of Public Law 109-308. Passed in 2006 and signed into law by then President George W. Bush, The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS) requires states seeking Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance to accommodate pets and service animals in their plans for evacuating residents facing disasters.

Many areas of the U.S. face hallmark disasters. The low-lying southeast and gulf states are especially prone to hurricane flooding and churning winds. Out here in the far west, earthquakes and brush fires can rule the day. To not have an emergency plan is downright irresponsible. At the bare minimum, one should take the following steps:

  • Post a sign outside your door alerting first responders to the number and types of pets in your home.
  • Keep a stash of provisions handy including food, water and waste disposal for at least five days, detailed descriptions of medical conditions, prescriptions and feeding instructions and pictures of you and your pets (in the event you are separated).
  • Heed mandatory evacuation orders and have a systematic plan for getting outta Dodge. No one dies a hero trying to save their house or their “stuff.”

Remember, your whole family needs you around to help pick up the pieces.