PALMETTO — Consie Von Gontard witnessed firsthand what happens if an animal is left behind when its owner evacuates during a hurricane.
She was part of an animal emergency response team dispatched to the Mississippi Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.
Of the animals that survived the storm, many were sick from contaminated water, injured from debris or psychologically disoriented after being separated from their owners.
Animals locked in crates and homes drowned or starved to death.
“That was the worst,” said Von Gontard, who works for the Humane Society of the United States and is part of the Bay Area Disaster Animal Response Team, part of the Tampa Bay SPCA.
“There were so many of them. We couldn’t get to them in time.”
With hurricane season starting today, Von Gontard fears people aren’t prepared to take care of their animals if a storm hit.
With that in mind, several animal disaster response teams gathered Sunday at the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus for a mock drill and to teach others how to make a disaster plan.
The University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine coordinated the drill. A slew of groups, including Southeastern Guide Dogs, participated: the Bay Area Disaster Animal Response Team, the University of Florida Veterinarian Emergency Team and Vet Corps, the state reserve for veterinarians and vet technicians.
Their goal: to get communities and veterinarians in Florida better prepared to serve the animal population, said Dr. Terry Clekis, an organizer and co-chairman of the Florida Veterinary Medical Association.
“Communities that are prepared fare better than communities that are not,” said Clekis, a veterinarian at Braden River Animal Hospital. “You can’t depend on outside organizations. That could take three to four days or longer.”
The drill simulated what would happen following a Category 3 hurricane with extensive flooding and damage, according to John Haven, director of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine
“As we go through this, we’ll find things we’ll do differently,” Haven said. “This provides an opportunity to practice.”
In the drill, the Southeastern Guide Dogs site was used as a “surge” kennel for dogs affected by a storm. To make the exercise more effective, 25 dogs from Southeastern’s puppy program were used in the drill.
Dogs were initially taken to an area set up for decontamination. Animals must be decontaminated when they have been exposed to harmful chemicals and hazardous materials because of the flooding, explained Von Gontard.
“Household chemicals, industrial chemicals and gasoline can be absorbed into their bloodstream,” she said. “The more you treat it as a hazmat situation, the less likely you are to spread it.”
The dogs were cleaned twice and then sent to an intake tent where they were checked for microchips. At intake, the animals were photographed and given numbered collars that, in a real situation, would stay with them until they were returned to their owners, Von Gontard said.
After intake, the animals were assessed for injuries and illnesses. Once assessed, they were either hospitalized or cleared for a temporary shelter until their owners could be located.
Disaster plans a must
Dr. Jan Hasse, one of the drill organizers, said there needs to be a concerted effort among county officials, veterinarians and pet owners to have animal disaster plans.
Hasse and the other emergency responders at the drill have been working closely with county veterinarians associations across Florida to help veterinarians become better prepared to handle animals in disaster situations.
Not all counties have pet-friendly animal shelters or plans to handle disasters concerning animals.
“We found out with Hurricane Charley in ’04, people that had a plan did better,” said Hasse, a veterinarian with Sarasota Animal Clinic and disaster team co-chair for the Florida Veterinary Association.
“People that weren’t prepared were in trouble. Our goal is to get veterinarians ready to have a plan.”
Connie Brooks, head of the Bay Area Disaster Animal Response Team, has become a staunch advocate for animal disaster preparation.
She has been a member of animal emergency response teams dispatched to areas hit by Katrina and last year’s devastating Hurricane Ike.
“Animals and people lost their loves because people still did not have a plan,” she said.
“The goal today is so each community can make a plan and we can work together as a team.”