Talking Pets: Lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina

September 7, 2012 

As Hurricane Isaac bore down on the Louisiana coast on Aug. 29, the comparisons to Katrina were inevitable.

After all, it was seven years to the day since the upper Gulf Coast went through the most destructive natural disaster to hit the United States.

A friend of mine in Baton Rouge posted on Facebook a graphic showing the path of Katrina and the path of Isaac.

They were eerily similar, as were the locations of the storms in the gulf as they approached land in the satellite photos he posted later.

However, the similarities ended there.

Katrina roared ashore as a Cat. 4 hurricane; Isaac was a Cat. 1.

Katrina killed around 1,800 people; Isaac killed seven.

Then, the levees surrounding New Orleans breached, sending massive flooding into some of the poorest neighborhoods in

the South.

This time, the levees held.

Then, people were evacuated and forced to leave their pets behind because rescuers would not allow them to bring them aboard the boats and helicopters rescuing people.

The result? An estimated 600,000 pets were killed or left without shelter. Of those, an estimated 8,000 were rescued, creating an unforeseen and tremendous burden on animal shelters throughout the region.

This time, people said, "I'm not leaving without my pets." And they had the law to back them up.

Less than a month after Katrina, a bill was introduced in Congress to amend the Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to "ensure that state and local emergency preparedness operational plans address the needs of individuals with household pets and service animals following a major disaster or emergency" (Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan arm of the Library of Congress).

Despite meandering its way through committees and votes and revisions, it was signed into law by then-President George W. Bush on Oct. 6, 2006.

As I watched the Hurricane Isaac coverage on television and saw people and their pets getting into boats to be evacuated, I couldn't help but compare the scenes to those of 2005: dogs swimming through toxic waters, homeless pets approaching rescue workers hoping for a scrap of food, shelters packed with animals that were visibly in distress.

For a long time, officials had a hard time getting some people to evacuate because they didn't want to leave their pets behind. The solution was so simple: Let them take their pets with them. Let them take their animals to pet-friendly storm shelters.

But years ago, that never would have been considered. "Make room in the lifeboats for pets over people?"

Yes.

It's a shame that it took a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina to teach us that it can be done.

M.K. Means, Herald copy editor, can be reached at 941-745-7054.

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