Disaster Response: Top 10 Ways to Make a Real Impact

This article is dedicated to the thousands of hard-working animal response organizations and their volunteers that slept on the concrete, ate MREs, endured the horror of dragging drowned or killed animal carcasses out of buildings, trees, and mud after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and occasionally proclaimed joyfully, "This one's ALIVE!" The horse industry greatly appreciates you all.

By Janice Baker, DVM, and Rebecca Gimenez, PhD

After a disaster, all of us want to help in some way. Unfortunately, most people feel frustrated with their inability to do anything. Did you find yourself suddenly willing to give time, money, and effort that otherwise would be put to other tasks and priorities as you watched the devastation of Katrina unfold? The horse-owning and veterinary communities can help in many different ways, from donations of cash to in-kind equipment, supplies, and professional expertise, to giving your time and effort. Here's some information from those on the front lines who have trained to help in emergency situations to help you plan not only how you can help others, but yourself and your own community.

Animals in Disasters

In the last decade, there have been outstanding improvements in planning for animals in disasters nationwide. We can learn many early lessons from the responses to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that affected the Gulf Coast to allow us as veterinarians and horse owners make a better personal impact in the future on disaster response. Here's how:

1. Understand the big picture;
2. Prepare and educate yourself first;
3. Don't add to the problem;
4. Rethink the term "hero;"
5. Be a good leader, be a great follower;
6. Soul search your motives;
7. Build on your skills and interests;
8. Plug yourself into the existing plan;
9. Understand your limitations;
10. Start with your own community.

Now let's break these down and take a look at how they affect you, your animals, your community, and your neighbors across the country.

1. Understand the "Big Picture"

How big? Hurricane Katrina created 90,000 square miles of disaster area, from deep swamps to agricultural land to quaint towns along the beach to a major urban area across five states (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas). Hundreds of thousands of people had to evacuate and make heart-wrenching decisions about what to take with them.

How do people change their definition of "valuables" when faced with a looming disaster and only a few hours to react and escape? Fortunately, most horse people took this storm seriously and got their animals out of harm's way. Hurricane Rita was striking the Texas coast as this article was being written, and there are already stories of many thousands of horses being evacuated, toiling along routes to the west and north, many owners trapped in traffic for hours trying to get out ahead of the storm.

The animal issues in a large-scale disaster can be divided generally into two main groups: Individual animal rescue, transport, and sheltering; and concerns for public health and food safety. These two areas overlap in many ways.

Displaced or stranded animals need to be rescued or "captured," then decontaminated, provided with food, water, and shelter, and given veterinary care, if needed. Thousands of animals running loose as packs and herds over a large area, urinating and defecating in the streets, or drowned bodies decomposing, creates a significant public health risk. Depending on whom you ask, different agencies or organizations will stress different aspects of these issues.

Most veterinarians and their support staff who aren't involved through community planning look at disaster response from the point of view of individual animal care--what they do very well, every day. They might volunteer their veterinary expertise as "self-deployers" to affected areas to help save the animals. With little or no previous training in response, search and rescue, and with little regard for other emergency management concerns, they see themselves heroically as "Saving the world, one animal at a time (anon)."

Meanwhile, organizations and leaders with veterinary public health responsibilities are taught to approach the situation in terms of masses of animals, damage assessments, and providing preventive medicine. Out in the field, they might pass right by an animal stranded on a rooftop to assess a damaged clinic with dead and decomposing animals. They seemingly enter and exit an area "without doing anything," at least in the eyes of bystanders. Frustrated, well-meaning volunteers easily convince themselves that the only way to get help to poor, helpless animals is to take matters into their own hands, disregarding the incident management system and breaking into restricted areas to save animals.

Public health and emergency management leaders see self-deployed unwanted volunteers (SUVs) as only adding to the chaos, and as a liability nightmare. When there is a massive influx of self-deployed and largely untrained responders, often it becomes necessary for emergency managers to restrict all access to the area to prevent additional problems. While this might seem like a knee-jerk response, there are serious concerns and valid reasons for these restrictions. As a part of good risk management, human responders should be provided every safety and health prevention method, including prior vaccination, safety equipment, personnel accountability, clean food and water, non-hazardous places to sleep and rest after work cycles, etc.

There is a cycle: The liability and safety nightmare escalates, access is restricted further, animals remain stranded, "rescuers" defy the law to help, frustrations further escalate all around, and the situation deteriorates even more. Regardless of where you feel you are best suited to fit into the overall response, everyone involved needs to understand the big picture and be willing to assist with the overall plan.

Awareness for these issues has grown throughout the veterinary community, and several horrific disasters have allowed emergency managers to learn from others' mistakes and improve their coordination and posture for response. More veterinary schools are developing extracurricular programs for disaster response training and several (such as the University of Louisiana and University of California, Davis) have formed organized response teams.

There are a variety of groups nationwide participating as governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have a specific interest in large animals and horses, including Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMAT), Special Medical Assessment Team-Veterinary (SMART-V), Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), State Animal Response Teams (SART), CODE 3 Associates (a private, specially trained equipped rescue unit, www.code3associates.org), and Days End Farm Horse Rescue (also trained and equipped, www.defhr.org).

2. Prepare and Educate Yourself First

The most important thing you can do to help in a future disaster is to educate yourself ahead of time to speak the language of disasters. If you are trained in Incident Command System (ICS) and National Incident Management System (NIMS), you will be able to help implement your local, state, and even federal animal disaster plans. Educate yourself as to who the players are and decide where you would like to fit in the system.

There are countless free basic courses on emergency management, community planning, and disaster response and relief, both for humans and animals. Just like any other specialty professional career, there is training available for emergency responders: In search and rescue, animal sheltering, community planning, technical large animal emergencies, funds and donation management, agro-terrorism, hazardous materials (HAZMAT), weapons of mass destruction, public information, even field medicine of working dogs and patrol horses.

Remember, veterinary skills alone are not enough to effectively help in a disaster. Understand your qualifications and your limitations. If you truly want to be on the front lines and be called in before anyone else, make the effort to get regular training and consider joining an official response group that will be activated.

If you are not willing to make the initial effort to educate yourself, don't be surprised when you are turned away from the "action." If you simply hadn't thought about it before the disaster arises, be patient to wait until there is an official call for outside volunteers.

In each disaster, animal groups report finding starvation and neglect cases that were there well before the hurricane. These need to be well-documented (photographs or video and a description of the case) if possible so that later prosecutorial procedures can be initiated through animal control or humane agencies.

Remember that large animals left trapped in a stall or small paddock with absolutely no food can lose up to 10 pounds a day and about one Body Condition Score (BCS) in 12 days. If a horse with a BCS of 2 is found six days after the disaster, that animal was neglected prior to the disaster. If it is found 24 days after the disaster, that horse was on the thin side at the beginning of the disaster. If it is a BCS of 6 at 24 days after the disaster, the horse was obese before the disaster. Most of the dogs and cats that are left behind are going to be considered "abandoned" unless there is significant evidence of ownership (microchips, collars), whereas most livestock are more considered to be "lost" or "misplaced."

Veterinarians, vet techs, and trained rescue personnel should practice triage skills. Providing euthanasia is one of the most heart-wrenching jobs. It is a fact of life that some animals will be injured beyond repair by the disaster, and others will become extremely sick or die due to pre-existing or follow-on diseases. In a disaster environment where transportation and medical care resources are minimal, veterinarians will be conducting field triage, and having to make hard choices. Conditions that in normal circumstances might have a chance of being surgically or medically corrected (colic, botulism, broken bones, etc.) will not usually be possible to correct in the first days after the disaster when communication and transportation resources are minimal, and treatment options severely limited by time and resources.

Animal-related response resources are classified by FEMA and NIMS by specific assets, including teams, personnel, equipment, and supplies. The classifications provide emergency managers with the information they need to request and receive the right resources they need during a disaster (i.e., exotic animal expertise, training, equipment, vehicles, etc.). At this time, 120 response resources have been recognized, and the lists are continuously updated, revised, and expanded.

Information is also included about the group's level of capability or "Type," which is a measure of minimum capabilities to perform the function. Type I implies a higher capability than Type II. (see www.nimsonline.com/resource_typing_system).

3. Don't Add to the Problem

When public sanitation and sheltering abilities are already overwhelmed, an influx of volunteer relief workers can cause a huge burden on already limited resources. If 20,000 people don't have food to eat, a place to sleep, medical care, or a place to go to the bathroom, how will you meet these needs for yourself as a responder? People who got angry about why it takes FEMA teams "so long to respond" don't understand that it typically takes days to mobilize, transport, and set up an entire deployed unit, even with everyone ready to go.

In the first hours after the disaster, U.S. Army Reserve teams will be on site conducting human rescues, but animals are a lower priority than human lives. A decent response within three days is impressive! Experience shows that teams must be organized, everything and everyone accounted for and ready to move out, and resources to meet the needs of responders have to be planned before the group leaves.

Don't be an SUV--self-deployed unwanted volunteers take up huge quantities of time and effort from the response community just to feed, shelter, and track them. Even with the best intentions at heart, having SUVs getting into disaster areas to make heroic rescues of a few individual animals is a security and command/control nightmare. If those people get injured or lost, they will take up resources that could have otherwise been pointed to the bigger picture.

Know something about the mission of each team. Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMAT) do not do individual animal rescues or sheltering; that task is left to humane societies and animal controls (like HSUS). These VMAT teams work at designated locations in the disaster zone to tame the flood of incoming rescued and found animals into an organized flow that allows the animals the best care possible, while addressing concerns for identification, return to their owners, decontamination, health issues and treatment, and sheltering.

Hurricanes Andrew, Floyd, Charley, Ivan, and Katrina brought thousands of willing veterinary volunteers to the area, without official affiliation to any specific relief agency. The frustrating part of these efforts is that every one of those people felt they were "helping." Any attempt at reining them in was perceived by the public as denying help to the animals.

There needs to be more coordination between groups attending the disaster to make sure the right information gets out to the public, preventing abuses of donations, making efforts more efficient, and minimizing the frustration of emergency officials so they can focus on their jobs.

VMAT member and this article's co-author Janice Baker, DVM, recalled that during Hurricane Floyd, "While my task force was intended to coordinate aviation assets and veterinary response efforts, I spent a great majority of my time just trying to keep track of the whereabouts and actions of self-deployed volunteers. As part of the first 'official' veterinary response team in the area, many misadventures of self-deployed volunteers were attributed to my unit, leaving us to explain or fix the problem that we did not start!"

Examples included veterinary students pretending to be veterinarians, technicians performing "veterinary" procedures, animal rescue groups competing (unethically) for donations, and well-intended outside veterinarians sweeping through the region vaccinating anything with fur completely free, taking away income from functional veterinary practices in the area.

She went on to explain, "In many cases, random, unaffiliated animal response personnel were interviewed by the media, then portrayed as the 'official' word on veterinary response, giving conflicting information to the public."

Respond from outside the disaster area only when requested and activated by an organized agency that has legal access to the affected area. In the event of a catastrophic disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, this might take days. Be patient and wait until the time is right. One of the qualities of a potential team member we look for is the insight and self-discipline to know when not to rush in. Sometimes staying out of the way can be the best thing you can do.

4. Rethink the Term "Heroic"

The media has often misapplied the term "hero," assigning this status to anyone who happens to be in the area when bad things happen. Unfortunately, this sometimes includes people who might have brought the situation on themselves. "Caught-on-video" telecasts will show a 1,400-pound horse stuck in mud, a hysterical owner, the local volunteer fire department with their sirens, a helicopter and a veterinarian, get someone to throw a lariat (someone always throws a lariat), have everyone wave their arms and yell "yee-haaw!" a lot, and you have the classic News-At-Eleven "heroic animal rescue."

In Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the media profiled some people who went around roadblocks and entered restricted areas as "dedicated rescuers" and "heroic citizens." It became a bragging point for people who felt that bucking the system was what saved the day. The floods from Katrina definitely overwhelmed the organized emergency management system and official search and rescue teams' abilities to help in a timely manner. It is no doubt that thousands of people and animals were saved by citizen volunteers who were helping as individuals and not part of an organized, "official" team.

This is the real dilemma. Entering a dangerous area to rescue a person or animal sometimes leads to a "rescue the rescuer" situation. Well-meaning, untrained people put themselves in harm's way to help save a person or animal, and when things go wrong, they end up needing to be rescued themselves. Thus, a simple primary rescue, best handled by trained professionals, turns into a secondary rescue, diverting time and resources from other situations where they were originally needed.

Granted, in some cases, the initial victim cannot wait long enough for the "pros" to arrive, and first-responders tackle the rescue. But in the case of animals, as precious as they are to us and our profession, it is hard to justify someone having to be rescued by emergency responders because he/she was trying to get a dog off a rooftop or drive a horse trailer through rushing water on the road. Animals that are left behind are sometimes going to die, but no person should die trying to save them. Nor should anyone encourage unsafe or illegal actions by glorifying them in the media or bragging about individual accomplishments.

5. Be a Good Leader, Be a Great Follower

Three weeks after Katrina hit, Louisiana State University (LSU) and HSUS are sending out urgent calls for volunteers to assist at the shelters they have set up in New Orleans, Hattiesburg, etc. They cannot get enough people to come to provide daily care for thousands of companion animals and horses at their facilities. They need volunteers willing to clean cages or stalls, feed, and bathe the animals.

Can you take a tax write-off by donating space to evacuees? Or should you charge? There are plenty of stories of people taking advantage of well-meaning owners by using the facilities, then refusing to clean stalls, assist with feeding and management of the animals, and even failing to offer compensation for their stay. Keep in mind that $20 per night per animal is the average going rate for overnight facilities for horses across the country. Some owners will refuse the money, but you should expect to at least offer to pay.

6. Soul Search Your Motives

Many veterinary volunteers seem to think that their skills are "wasted" if they don't end up performing actual veterinary clinical work, and instead "get stuck" providing the more day-to-day care of sheltering or stabling animals. Somehow, saving a few homeless animals in the "hot zone" of a large-scale disaster is more appealing than saving hundreds of homeless animals that have to be destroyed each month from simple over-breeding and neglect in our own hometowns.

Dr. Baker related, "Several years ago I worked with a small group of veterinary students during a local flood. They became disgruntled when the veterinarians on site (volunteers from local clinics) would not allow them to perform invasive veterinary procedures when indicated. Instead, the veterinarians tasked them with nursing care and kennel duties. Most of the animals in the makeshift shelter were otherwise healthy and needed little veterinary care after initial examination. After two days of volunteering, these students went home angry, stating that the experience was a waste of their time."

Some might argue that the flood was not planned as part of their curriculum for them to gain surgical experience. They completely overlooked the fact that these animals belonged to clients of these practitioners, and that all licensing laws regarding the practice of veterinary medicine still applied, even in the face of this flood. No doubt students will gain valuable experience helping in a disaster, but if gaining clinical experience, or appearing as a "hero," is your only motive for helping, you are probably helping for the wrong reasons.

7. Build on Your Skills and Interests

You don't have to get in your truck and drive to the disaster zone to help. In Hurricane Katrina and every other disaster in the last 15 years, VMAT teams, HSUS, and other animal groups (animal controls, humane societies, volunteer organizations, and pet rescues) have learned to set up staging areas early in the response for efficient distribution of the overwhelming numbers of in-kind donations of animal food, supplies, equipment, tack, and all the "stuff" that people consider that victims might need. There will be donations by the ton and organizations need to have a plan for getting those donations so they can organize and distribute them.

You might be most useful to an organized group by sitting at a computer in your house and helping to manage donations by imputing them in a database, coordinating shipments to needed shelters, etc. Perhaps they need someone to coordinate press releases, photographs, or the large numbers of volunteers? Can you use state and national animal organizations and their large databases of members' e-mails to distribute information, press releases, and relevant information? This is an often overlooked aspect of volunteering for disasters.

The more correct information that emergency officials and animal groups get out early in the response (addresses of staging areas, mailing addresses for response groups, sharing of contact e-mail and phone data, wish lists of "stuff" for donations), the easier it is to manage the response to the disaster correctly. This requires people sitting at phones and checking e-mails, which gives more members of a team a job that can be done away from the disaster zone, freeing up resources for deployed members.

Animals arriving by means other than approved emergency management agencies must be tracked, triaged, decontaminated, and provided access to veterinary medical care. Having a central database for all animals entering the shelter will maximize their chance at reunification with their families and will greatly assist in their relocation efforts.

Do you have skills other than veterinary related that could be utilized in the disaster? At the request of teams on the front-line of recovery right after Katrina, www.TheHorse.com had a dedicated web designer and editorial staff who spent hours over the Labor Day holiday creating a database for imput by animal owners who had left the area, but were concerned about finding their animals. This information was provided daily to animal rescue groups in the field by fax or e-mail, allowing them to check those homes for possible rescue of the animals. Later the database was input one at a time into Petfinder.com to expand the possibility of owners finding their lost pets.

8. Plug Yourself Into the Existing Plan

Get plugged into the system of incident management at the local level first. There is a plan, and very little need to re-invent the system. Many communities have written emergency plans that include plans for animals. You should find that plan and read it as it might be due for a significant update or overhaul of information.

County/State Animal Response Teams (CART, SART) models are working very well for many communities; some states also have very strong state veterinary and agriculture/animal health offices that are providing leadership for these efforts.

Official teams respond to requests made to it through official channels for assistance and do not sanction "free-lance" activities by individuals. Individuals who take the initiative to become involved without being part of an official team deployment do so without the benefit of liability protection, and they are not authorized to represent any organization to the media. While seeming restrictive, these are simple guidelines to prevent conflict. For example, some individuals might be prevented from removing animals from the affected area, making a private trip to the area not only futile, but potentially disruptive to efforts underway to assist individuals already there.

9. Understand the Limitations

Does a disaster response mean that suddenly it is okay to allow unqualified people to conduct surgery on animals or use expired drugs to treat them? Absolutely not! As a professional, do you have the right to practice in another state? Sometimes the state veterinarian will enter into an agreement that allows licensed veterinarians from other states to practice within strict controls during the response to the disaster. In other cases, this does not occur and a veterinarian could be charged with practicing without a license.

If you really want to help get the local economy up as quickly as possible--do this by encouraging cash donations to the charities that are running the animal rescue effort. They will purchase supplies and equipment as locally as possible, which pulls money into the floundering economy of the devastated area. Within days, businesses that are able will re-open and many supplies will be available for purchase.

Entering peoples' properties--even with the best of intentions--is dangerous and might be illegal. Depending on the state, it might be illegal to go into a house to assist pets (which are owned, implying theft by you). If you remove a horse, you must document that removal so that if the owners come home later they will know where the animal was taken. Is there evidence that the animals have food, water, and shelter? Might they be safer where they are with a daily delivery of hay?

If you go into a disaster zone as an SUV or even with a certified group, you should be capable of taking care of yourself. You should have your vaccinations, medications, identification, fuel, food, water, and changes of clothes. You should be prepared to totally care for yourself for a minimum of 72 hours. Bring your own equipment and supplies; do not expect others to provide you with gloves, dry suits, boats, etc. It takes at least 72 hours for the Red Cross and other response organizations to set up shelters, bathrooms, and serve meals to responders.

There were numerous stories of well-intentioned SUVs driving to Mississippi and Louisiana after Katrina, then getting stranded with a trailer full of donations simply due to running out of fuel.

Most organizations need volunteers in animal and human shelters out of the disaster zone to assist the thousands relocated from the disaster area. Local animal shelters need help meeting needs of the animals brought out with those forced to evacuate. In addition, unowned or surrendered animals from the disaster zone will be shipped to other facilities to find homes for them. There are already thousands of evacuees from Katrina and Rita who have surrendered their pets because they did not feel they could afford to care for them, or could not find a place to keep them.

10. Start With Your Own Community

Why are we so willing to help once the disaster has occurred, but we are complacent and indifferent to opportunities to prepare ourselves and our communities prior to disasters?

If Hurricane Katrina has inspired you to help, turn to your own community and ask how you will respond. Your area might not be prone to hurricanes or floods, but what about ice storms, heat waves, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, or foreign animal disease? Are you near a major highway or railway? What about toxic spills from tanker trucks or rail cars? In those cases, your entire community might need to evacuate without warning.

Do you live in a small town with only one feed store? What will you do if that store catches fire and your neighbors are out of hay? What if the water supply is damaged or contaminated?

These situations show you ways you can help prepare for disasters and to lessen their effect when they occur.

If you are a horse owner or veterinarian, do you (or do you have rural clients) with large, covered arenas or barns? Would you or your client be willing to allow that facility be used as an animal shelter or emergency hospital for other animals if people in the town have to evacuate?

Imagine the time and effort saved if this facility was designated ahead of time by city or county emergency management for this type of response. As veterinarians and animal owners and caregivers, you have invaluable resources and ideas to contribute in preparing your own community. Whether it is practicing fire and evacuation drills at your own clinic or barn, offering animal first aid and preparedness classes in your community, or getting involved with your county emergency management office, there is a lot you can do to help at home.

There are two levels of disaster preparedness for all of us--personal preparedness in our homes and families so we can take care of ourselves and our loved ones; and business preparedness and resumption/contingency planning for our businesses. Even if your farm is a hobby, it is important to plan for getting the doors open again!

It has been documented that people who leave pets and animals behind during disasters tend to be less responsible owners in general, scoring lower on pet attachment scales and often failing to provide normal vaccination, sterilization, and annual vet care for their animals. According to one study in 1999, approximately 30-50% of pet (cat and dog) owners leave their pets behind during evacuations, even with advance notice to leave. However, 50-70% of these same owners will attempt to later "rescue" their animals, going around security barriers to provide food or attempt to bring them out. Even when under mandatory evacuation, some people will not leave their animals, and they might die making this choice.

Animals that are re-united with their owners are usually from homes that have responsible owners that initiate an obvious effort to find their animals, and their animals are properly identified (brands, microchips, neck bands, etched or branded hooves, body paint, etc.). While 80% of dogs and cats that are rescued after a disaster were stray or abandoned before the disaster, there are very few cases where horses are abandoned or stray animals. The animals left behind and not evacuated are usually because the owner was unable to catch, transport, or find a place to house the horses. However, the disaster might liberate animals living in horrific neglect, starvation, and abuse conditions.

You Can Make That Impact

These are note new lessons that we learned from the recent disasters; they are unfortunately new stories with an old refrain. It is crucial that horse professionals get involved in disaster preparedness and planning in their communities. If everyone had a disaster plan, in a perfect world everyone would get their animals out, and there would be no need for response to victims' needs, nor the recovery of bodies. No one wants to be an alarmist, but sometimes it requires disasters of epic proportions to motivate people into doing what they should have done long ago.

Asking the Hard Questions

When You Leave:

Take your animals with you. If you would not leave your children, do not leave your animals. If for some reason you cannot do this, remove fencing in low areas so animals can reach higher ground on their own.

Large numbers of animals should be evacuated very early in the case of wildfires, flooding, and hurricanes. It takes a lot of manpower and space to move these animals. Who else do you know that can help you trailer the horses out of the danger zone? Consult your local emergency management team and watch the weather channels to determine the extent of the disaster. You want to be well out of it.

Do the math: If you have to move your horses 100 miles to safety, and it is going to take three trips, that is 500 miles of driving to evacuate all of your animals. You do not want to be stranded with your animals in the middle of a flood and be unreachable to the outside world.

Have several days of feed, water, medications, etc. as needed for each horse being evacuated. Expect to pay for the facilities you use! (Average $20 per day per animal.) Self-reliance is a crucial part of emergency management policy--it is your job and your responsibility to come with a plan to take care of yourself, your family, and your animals. If you board someone else's animals, they will look to you to be the responsible person that takes care of their animals as your own. Emergency management officials will attempt to provide assistance to persons and animals that are affected by the disaster, but that should be reserved for the old, the infirmed, and the very young.

Teach your horses to load, no matter what! Practice at night, alone, when it is raining, windy, dark, and generally miserable.

Find sheltering facilities across the state or have an overnight or short-term boarding facility to which you can evacuate. Have their contact information saved with all your papers.

When You Return:

Don't go back until emergency management tells you to go back. They need to clear roads, bring out dangerous hazards (downed power lines, floating gas tanks, dead human and animal bodies, etc.) before you attempt to get home.

Identify safe areas for grazing (do not allow animals access to the hazardous materials found in floodwaters, volcanic ash, or even sprayed-on chemicals and fertilizer).

Check all fences, barns, and sheds for structural integrity before putting animals back in. Make sure the electric fence is on to prevent straying.

                                                                                                                                        -- Janice Baker, DVM and Rebecca Gimenez, PhD

Personal Disaster Planning
This is always better to think about in the absence of an immediate threat. Assess what kind of disasters can realistically occur in your area. These should include natural ones (hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfire, blizzards) as well as man-made ones (local gas plant explodes, train wreck leaks poisonous gases). Gain a solid understanding of emergency and disaster planning being done at the local level in your town and county.

The planning process is as important (if not more important) than the plan itself, involving all effected people as a team in the plan (your family members, employees, boarders, etc.). Getting everyone involved ensures commitment by everyone to the effort. This knowledge spreads to make your employees and family members empowered, more self-reliant, and confident if a disaster should occur and you aren't around.

For a veterinary practice or farm/clinic facilities, what is the potential for easy recovery of the farm or business? What would be the effects of decreased economic efficiency, actual losses (income and production losses such as dead or injured animals or abortions), and uninsured events on your business?


The Disaster Planning Cycle

Mitgation is making permanent changes to minimize effect of a disaster, such as not building your barn in a 100-year floodplain. It might include adding a sprinkler system to allow early knock-down of fires or using non-flammable materials to build the barn.

Preparation includes creating a facility evacuation plan, videotaping all your assets and putting that in the safe deposit box, and getting insurance (including flood insurance) on your property. Do a monthly back-up of computer records, and get copies of ID, microchip numbers, Coggins papers, and photographs for each horse (including your boarders' horses). Put them in the safe deposit box.

Response is when you are under the watch and warning phases of the disaster and you implement your plans. This might include loading and transporting animals away from a hurricane early in the evacuation, or providing feed and water to livestock before a blizzard. Even the best plan will not think of everything; be flexible and fix it as you go along, then learn from your response to make it go better next time.

Recovery is when you get emergency repairs, with preparation for re-building based on mitigating the effect of the next event, evaluating your needs based on losses, and assessment of damages. You will recover and re-open your farm or business based on how successfully you planned for the migration, preparation and response phases.

In many disasters, it is not the impact of the event that is worst. The worst can be the chaos and confusion that occur after. Snow falling is beautiful to most people, but if you get six feet of it and cannot get home to your horses and children, or can't get hay from the feed store, that is going to be a disaster to you. We all tend to get complacent with our routines.

Think right now: How many trailer spaces do you have available? If you pack that four-horse gooseneck trailer with your four horses, where will you put your dogs, cats, and human family members? Would you have to make two trips to get out the other four horses you own? Where will you go to? How far a drive is it? Do you have enough fuel to get there? Have you made prior contacts so that when you get there the alternate facility is not closed or full? These are the kinds of questions that we need to ask ourselves.

Dr. Cindy Merrick, Creek Side Veterinary Clinic in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., enacted an evacuation plan she shared with interested clients in 2004 as Hurricane Frances roared straight at Daytona Beach as a Category 5 hurricane. The main coordinator for the evacuation were her clients Janet Gillespie and Kay Garcia, who found a large out-of-state horse facility with close motels (that would accept pets), then they lined up commercial horse transportation.

Necessities were loaded for horse care and personal items, then the people followed the six commercial vans about six hours up the interstate to the Hawkinsville, Ga., trotting training track (the racehorses are up north during the summer). Clients shared the cost of the large vans (many of her clients do not have enough trailer space for all their horses). More than 100 private horses made the trip, plus a few in private trailers; the facility could hold 400.

Their only real challenge was having no place to turn out horses, making the intensive work of cleaning stalls and hand-walking animals. Merrick reported that with her lost veterinary work income, motel costs, transportation for her eight personal horses, food, and necessities, she "spent" about $6,000 for the 10-day adventure.

"Last week I was talking with a client who said that at times she regretted taking the horses all the way from home for the trip, until she saw the pictures of the devastation of Katrina," said Merrick. "She said she would do it again to prevent that from happening to her."

Provide excellent identification for your animals. Recommendations include micro-chips, freeze brands, halter ID tags, or leg ID bands. Have photos and ownership proof to be able to pick up the animals so that someone cannot steal them. The sheltering facilities should require some proof of ownership.

Prioritize the values (actual market value or sentimental) of your animals right now. Make a list of who to save first. This might sound harsh, but disasters require you to be practical. The 20-year-old bombproof lesson horse whom everyone loves might be more valuable than the 2-year-old show horse to some people. Which ones give you arguments about getting on the trailer or seem to colic every time they drink different water?

Do you have enough hay, feed, and water to get them to where they are going and be happy for about three days? Do you have extra fuel for your truck in case you get stuck in traffic or gas is not available? You will need a first aid kit (for humans and horses), a radio, and a CB with NOAA radio capability to keep up with the progress of the disaster.

In your plan you should document a specific list of tasks that are specific to your farm that must be done (turn off the power when you leave, unplug all appliances, etc.) so that you have something to which to refer when the pressure is on. This way you won't forget anything important.

"Leave 'em in or leave 'em out?" is the age-old question. In general, leave them out in the largest, best-built, fenced pasture you have. Horses will find cover in a copse of trees if they need it, but normally will stand with their butts to the wind so that the muscles of the hindquarter will absorb any serious injury from flying debris, etc. These injuries heal very well. Horses trapped in barns are subject to the flying debris all around them and the high possibility of a building fire or collapse. Are they perfectly safe outside? No. Documented stories of horses being electrocuted by falling power lines or lightning, crushed by flying vehicles and equipment, or lacerated severely by the debris are common.

Northern California in 1988 had a large-scale evacuation of a variety of livestock, horses, llamas, and other animals, including pets. Local emergency volunteers were the single greatest factor in the success of the evacuation of animals to safety, and most effective during the voluntary evacuation period, since that was the period when it was safest for both humans and animals to be conducting movement.

Similarly, Alta Loma/Rancho Cucomonga was able to evacuate more than 700 large animals in less than 12 hours when threatened by wildfires in 2003, all by a trained team of emergency responders and volunteers working together.

                                                                                                                                             -- Janice Baker, DVM and Rebecca Gimenez, PhD

1. Animal Management in Disasters, Sebastian Heath, Mosby, 1999.
2. Disaster Preparedness for Horses, Disaster Preparedness for Livestock, and Disaster Preparedness for Animal Facilities free brochures available at www.hsus.org.
3. Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Guidelines at www.aaep.org/pdfs/Emergency.pdf.
4. FEMA online free courses in Animals in Disasters--Community Planning, Awareness, and Preparedness, and Livestock in Disasters. Required training for anyone interested in responding, at training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/IS/is10.asp.
5. Equine Evacuation Forms courtesy ALERT at www.altalomaridingclub.com/ERT.htm.

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