Hurricanes Harvey and Irma remind us: Disaster plans must include animals

By Lindsay Pollard-Post

The scenes from the Texas Gulf Coast — where Hurricane Harvey caused unprecedented flooding and devastation — are harrowing: homes and businesses destroyed, roads turned into rivers, entire neighborhoods submerged, senior citizens trapped in a flooded assisted-living facility and terrified residents fleeing for their lives through murky, chest-deep waters.

But there is at least one sign of hope in this disaster: More than ever before, rescue efforts are including animals. Many emergency shelters are allowing people to take refuge along with their animal companions; evacuees are carrying their dogs, cats, birds and other animals to safety; and teams are rushing to the area to save stranded animals.

PETA’s rescue crew is on the ground in Port Arthur with a boat, food and supplies and has already rescued several families, dogs who were stranded in water up to their necks and even an armadillo.

The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey is a reminder that it’s vital to make an emergency plan now that includes all members of the family. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, fires and other disasters often strike with little to no warning, so preparation can mean the difference between life and death both for us and for our animal companions.

Start by mapping out possible evacuation routes and compiling a list of places where you can stay with your animals if you must quickly leave your home. Ask family members and friends if they would be willing to accommodate you and your animals for a few days, and call around to campgrounds and hotel chains — many hotels will waive their no-animals policies during emergencies. Keep a list with the addresses and phone numbers of all your lodging options or save them to your phone.

Even if you have no other option than to sleep in your car temporarily, your animals will be safer with you than they would be if left behind in an empty house. But use caution — never leave them in a parked vehicle during warm weather, as the interior temperature can quickly reach deadly levels.

Next, ensure that you’re ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice by assembling an emergency kit for each animal. Include a carrier, a leash, bowls, towels, a favorite toy or blanket and enough food, bottled water and medication to last at least a week. Have your animals microchipped, and make sure they’re wearing collars with legible identification tags.

Once you’ve completed these steps, take a moment to think through a variety of emergency scenarios. Whatever the situation, the most important point to remember is to keep your animals with you at all times. If you can’t evacuate, or choose not to, keep them indoors. Never leave them chained or penned outside, where they can drown in rising floodwaters or be killed by falling debris.

If you do evacuate, transport small animals in secure carriers and keep larger dogs leashed or harnessed, as frightening sights and sounds and unfamiliar surroundings can cause them to bolt.

Never leave animals behind: As we’ve learned from other disasters, downed power lines or impassable roads may prevent you from returning home for weeks, leaving them stranded.

If authorities force you to evacuate without your animals, leave them indoors with access to upper floors. Do not crate them. Provide at least 10 days’ worth of dry food, and fill sinks, bathtubs and large containers with water. Put signs on windows and doors indicating the number and species of animals inside, as rescue workers may be able to save them.

And be sure to watch for other animals in trouble, including any who may have gotten loose or been left behind by your neighbors. If you see any animals in distress and can’t help them, note their location and call authorities immediately.

Animals can’t dial 911, row a boat to safety or open a can of food. They count on us to protect them. Taking time to plan now will help ensure that our animal family members stay safe when — not if — the next disaster strikes.