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Response to Superstorm Sandy – Part II: Fed’s Action Protects Lives

Part I of this story reported on the assistance that the American Kennel Club Companion Animal Recovery (CAR) department has distributed to aid animals and their owners affected by Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of the East Coast three weeks ago. During a conversation with AKC Director of Communications Lisa Peterson, she noted that things were quite different following Sandy than they were in the days following Hurricane Katrina, the deadly storm that brought destruction to the Gulf Coast at the end of August 2005.

More than 1,800 people were killed as a result of Katrina, and hundreds of thousands of pets – some news outlets reported the number reached higher than 600,000 – were left behind as residents fled their homes in an attempt to get out of the storm’s path. As Peterson noted, “There have been so many fewer huge groups of displaced pets during Sandy,” which she attributes to lessons learned from Katrina, widespread public education and the PETS, or Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, which passed through Congress in the fall of 2006. President George W. Bush signed the PETS Act into law on October 6 of that year.

On October 28, 2012, a photographer caught this shot of a man with his dog, watching as a street in Brooklyn begins to flood. Thanks to the 2006 PETS Act, evacuees were assured that they could take their pets on public transportation during the evacuation – at least as long as the subways and buses remained operational. Photo © Anton Oparin/Dreamstime.com.

Following the horror and devastation of Katrina, now considered one of the deadliest and costliest natural disasters in U.S. history, President Bush and his administration set out to discover what had “prevented a more efficient and effective Federal response” to the storm. The Department of Homeland Security established a National Preparedness Goal, a National Emergency Communications Strategy, and other plans to assure that the federal government’s response to future disasters would be more successful. Many topics were studied, including evacuation procedures, search and rescue, public health, medical support, mass care and housing, and other crucial matters. The subject of people’s household pets was just one among dozens of topics, but one that was recognized to have influenced why or why not people in the path of the storm evacuated, and how victims of the storm were managed afterward.

The assessment that President Bush ordered noted that “state and local evacuation plans should…address establishing first-aid stations, tracking and coordinating movements of evacuees, evacuating pets, unaccompanied minors, the elderly, and evacuating people who lack the means to leave voluntarily.”

Peterson’s observation that she was “struck by how different things were during this recovery effort, compared to Katrina” is no doubt a direct result of action taken by the federal government following the 2005 hurricane, which impacted both the actions of people who were ordered to evacuate before Superstorm Sandy and how citizens have been housed since the storm.

The PETS Act, as summarized by govtrack.us, was designed to ensure that emergency preparedness plans address the needs of people with household pets and service animals, including making sure that emergency shelter facilities are available for people with pets and service animals. The PETS Act “authorizes FEMA to provide rescue, care, shelter and essential needs” for people with animals.

The specifics of the PETS Act are broad and somewhat complicated. But an overview, as explained by Peterson, requires that in addition to providing emergency shelter for people with pets, during evacuations animals are now allowed on all public transportation with their owners so they can safely reach those shelters. “People are now super-prepared,” says Peterson. “During Katrina, people would try to get on buses with their pets to evacuate and were told they couldn’t board with animals. Many elected to stay behind rather than leave their pets.”

In an interview with CNN following Sandy, Tim Rickey of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals noted the impact of the legislation when he said, “With the PETS Act, we have tremendous support now from the USDA, FEMA and the federal government that just did not exist in 2005.” As New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned residents on October 26 to be prepared to evacuate, emergency management officials mandated that all city shelters and transit accommodate pets leading up to and during the storm, according to Rickey. On Sunday, October 28, after Governor Chris Christie declared a state of emergency for New Jersey and ordered evacuations for much of the state, the local ABC station listed locations of shelters for evacuees including “pet-friendly” locations and a separate animal shelter that opened on Sunday to house animals.

Whether the PETS Act saved one life, one hundred lives, or a number fewer or greater during October’s storm will never be known, but undoubtedly residents who would not have been willing to leave their pets behind evacuated as ordered before Sandy hit the eastern seaboard.

Written by

Christi McDonald is a second-generation dog person, raised with a kennel full of Cairn Terriers. After more than a decade as a professional handler’s apprentice and handling professionally on her own, primarily Poodles and Cairns, she landed a fortuitous position in advertising sales with the monthly all-breed magazine ShowSight. This led to an 11-year run at Dogs in Review, where she wore several hats, including advertising sales rep, ad sales manager and, finally, editor for five years. Christi is proud to be part of the editorial team for the cutting-edge Best In Show Daily. She lives in Apex, N.C., with two homebred black Toy Poodles, the last of her Foxfire line, and a Norwich Terrier.

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