Turning the Tide After Katrina

By on August 29, 2007

There is no question that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 reoriented us as a nation. In a different way, Hurricane Katrina did, too. We as a society were not prepared for a disaster of Katrina’s magnitude, and she exposed our full array of weaknesses in preparedness and response capabilities.

Naturally, this included the response to the needs of animals in disasters.

German Shepherd dog rescued after Hurricane Katrina
© The HSUS
Rescuers found thousands of animals stranded after Katrina.

Since Katrina struck two years ago today, hardly a day has passed when I have not thought about its ruinous effects on the lives of people and animals, especially in Louisiana. For me, the events of late August and September 2005 are a searing memory. I went down to Louisiana for nearly three weeks, and I stared into the face of this disaster and felt the frustration borne of a lack of preparedness.

In the wake of the disaster, I vowed that The Humane Society of the United States would focus on three longer-term, big-picture goals. First, after the rescue operation ended, I vowed that we’d leave the humane infrastructure in Louisiana and Mississippi stronger than it had existed before the hurricanes. Unfortunately, neither state had a particularly strong network of humane societies, animal care agencies, spay and neuter operations, and other humane institutions. For example, Louisiana was one of the last redoubts for legal cockfighting (we broke through this year and finally got a law passed to outlaw the barbaric practice). We had to fortify the humane infrastructure, and the philanthropic response to the disaster provided that opportunity. That task is ongoing, and I hope you’ll read about our work on humanesociety.org. We’ve prepared a number of stories to mark the two-year anniversary of Katrina, and those will be posted throughout the week.

HSUS staff person with dog rescued after Hurricane Katrina
© The HSUS
The HSUS’s response to Hurricane Katrina
included short- and long-term strategies.

Second, I vowed that we as a nation would have stronger laws to protect animals in disasters. Nearly the entire burden for disaster response for animals—preparedness, rescue, shelter, transportation to in- and out-of-state facilities, reunions and other tasks—fell upon the shoulders of the humane community. There was a massive failure of responsibility on the part of governments—partly because there were no laws or other policies to guide government responders. In order to have an effective response, animal groups and government had to work in tandem. Responding to the needs of animals in disasters could not rely so heavily on the private sector.

And third, I vowed that The HSUS would itself be far better prepared for the next disaster by building our response capacity. Before Katrina, we had been foresighted in having the movement’s most developed disaster planning program, but did not have enough resources to get the job done. In disaster work, I learned that any successful response hinges on preparedness and capacity building.

I think we are well on our way toward achieving each goal. I am particularly proud that since Katrina struck, we have shepherded to passage a strong new federal law dealing with animals and disasters (the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act) and 16 state laws. That is a watershed in terms of policy making, and we are in a far better position as states and as a nation to respond. And we are working with state agencies and with State Animal Response Teams to see that planning and preparedness remain a priority.

As Katrina was unfolding, The HSUS was the most visible presence for animals, sharing the stories of the affected animals with a nation that became transfixed with their plight. We shaped public debate in a beneficial way for animals, and the American people responded with extraordinary charity and with a will to see governments and private groups in a better position to respond in the future. Never again will animals be forgotten when disasters strike. 

Categories
Companion Animals, Uncategorized

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