LOS ANGELES (AP) — Outside the nearly 2,000 human fatalities from Hurricane Katrina, the disaster displaced or killed hundreds of thousands of dogs, cats and other animals at a time when rescues focused on people and pets were left behind.
“So many animals disappeared. Many died outright,” said Francis Battista, co-founder of Best Friends Animal Society. “A lot of them were scooped up and didn’t make it into any official rescue system.”
Since the storm struck on Aug. 29, 2005, laws have changed how animal welfare groups and emergency responders approach pet rescues. They also have received training to better catalog animals they sweep from wildfires, earthquakes, flooding or tornadoes to ensure people reconnect with the pets they consider family.
During Katrina, nearly half the people who needed rescue refused to go without their pets, and first responders would not take them — even service animals. Now, U.S. law requires every Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster plan to include a way to evacuate pets.
The lessons from Katrina helped prevent Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the Jersey shore in 2012, from becoming catastrophic for pets, said Dick Green, senior director of disaster response for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Workers emptied shelters closest to the storm’s path and brought in veterinarians, food and supplies, losing “very few animals,” said Green, who was part of the task force handling animal evacuations.
Since Katrina, government agencies and animal welfare groups have improved coordination efforts to better organize disaster response. Groups such as the ASPCA also have made changes during rescues and while bringing animals into emergency shelters to increase the likelihood of reuniting people and pets, including clearly identifying where animals were found and describing their looks.
Workers now ensure critical paperwork stays with pets at evacuation facilities and post photos and information online. But the most important tool for a reunion is microchipping, groups say.
“Simply put, it’s their ticket home,” Green said.
That’s something a Labrador mix named Archie, a cat named Buddah and a mutt named Celine are still waiting for. They were rescued separately from Katrina and still live at Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah, after adoptions didn’t work out.
Archie, who tends to make a mess inside, and Celine, who was adopted but found as a stray a few years later, both can’t live with other dogs, Best Friends spokeswoman Barbara Williamson said. And Buddah tends to bully other cats.
They still need homes, but there was a happy ending for Celeste Marshall, a photographer from New Orleans who was overseas when Katrina struck. A neighbor cared for Mr. Gatsby, her 9-year-old tabby, while she stayed with friends in New York.
“I was sick without my cat,” Marshall said after learning she couldn’t return home.
The Red Cross suggested she contact the ASPCA. “What are they going to do — airlift him back?” she asked the organization. “But that’s exactly what they did,” flying the cat from her friend’s home to Marshall in New York.
In a sign of the improved teamwork between animal welfare agencies and federal responders, representatives got training on earthquake response this year in Southern California. A meeting in Albany, New York, followed to discuss the drill and how to buy half a million shelter units for animals.
Last month, they gathered in Washington, D.C., to hash out a plan for disasters that would overwhelm agencies, such as a massive earthquake.
“Ten years ago, we never would have gotten into this room,” said Green of the ASPCA. “We have made such incredible strides.”
The last phase is scheduled next week in Louisiana, where experts will talk about the progress made in animal disaster response since Katrina and what pet owners can do to make sure their animals are safe from the next storm.
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