Editorial by Kevin O”Neal and Christy Woods
Katrina. Ten years ago this month that name became forever linked with tragic scenes of devastated residents, flooded homes and businesses, harried evacuations, and heroic rescues throughout the Gulf States. Merciless in its carnage, Hurricane Katrina became one of the deadliest and most expensive natural disasters in our nation’s history.
Amidst enormous disaster response efforts mounted by communities and government agencies, a simultaneous animal rescue operation was being undertaken by emergency responders and animal welfare groups from Louisiana and across the country. They mobilized quickly to save and care for thousands of companion animals imperiled by the storm.
Despite the massive effort, Katrina’s devastation exposed many flaws in the way we were responding to animals during natural disasters, and groups like the ASPCA and other animal welfare responders immediately dedicated themselves to improving policies and processes to save more lives. We’ve come a long way in the past ten years, but there’s still much work to be done.
Some of that work is happening right now in the state of California — no stranger to natural disasters — where the ASPCA and the American Red Cross are working to pass AB 317, legislation that will improve California’s emergency response capabilities. Current state law only allows veterinary care of animals at facilities with a premise permit, and obtaining such a permit in the midst of a crisis can create life-threatening delays. AB 317 exempts emergency shelters from the permit requirement during state emergencies, though it requires those shelters to conform to all standards of care expected of permanent veterinary facilities.
Our experience during Katrina confirms the importance of these temporary animal shelters. According to a Fritz Institute poll, 44 percent of New Orleans residents delayed or chose not to evacuate the city because they refused to leave their pets behind. A similar nationwide poll by Lake Research Partners on behalf of the ASPCA found 42 percent of Americans across the country stating they would also not evacuate without their pets. With pets, owners, and emergency responders all at such great risk, accessible emergency shelters are critical to saving lives.
While the rescue of animals in the initial response to a disaster is critical, reuniting animals with their owners after a disaster is equally important. In the aftermath of Katrina, roughly 15 to 20 percent of animals were reunited with their owners.
Establishing emergency animal shelters near Red Cross shelters is a key component to increasing the return of animals to their families, and both the Red Cross and ASPCA strive to co-locate shelters whenever possible. AB 317 would facilitate this process by making the establishment of fully-qualified emergency shelters easier and faster.
This is why the Red Cross joins us in enthusiastically supporting AB 317, which currently needs one more critical vote before heading to the Governor for his consideration.
Thanks to the lessons of Katrina, animals are better protected during natural disasters now than they’ve ever been, but California can play an important role in ensuring and enhancing those protections with AB 317, which serves the best interests of California pets and people. We thank Assemblyman Brian Maienschein (D-San Diego) for his leadership in recognizing the need for this legislation, and we urge the Senate to take decisive action to pass this bill.
Kevin O’Neill is senior director of government relations for the ASPCA/Western region. Christy Woods is director of state government relations and external affairs for the American Red Cross.