Twelve years ago, I was in South Carolina attending a training with several staff and volunteers when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I remember watching the news coverage and seeing the first picture of a dog on a roof and texting back to the staff at Humane Society of Berks County: They are going to start showing the animals, get ready for calls.
I was right. Coverage of the animals facing peril became almost as ubiquitous as the coverage of people. It was clear that no plans had been made to help animals, or even people with animals. Stories were told, perhaps apocryphal but probably not, that people had drowned because they refused to be evacuated without their pets or were turned away from shelters because they refused to abandon their pets.
And we received calls from our local and regional press, asking what planning we’d start doing in the event of a natural disaster or similar emergency.
What planning would we start doing? Brother, we were way ahead of them.
The year before Katrina, the Humane Society of Berks County had already established the Berks County Animal Response Team (CART), which operates under the Pennsylvania State Animal Response Team. We brought together our staff, volunteers, and local partners to begin the preparations for emergencies that impact pets and people. These teams were very new at the time. I believe only three states had state teams and there were only a few Pennsylvania Counties with CARTs.
CARTs are semi-autonomous volunteer response teams that operate under the umbrella of the State Animal Response Team, which in turn is activated by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Administration (and in our county, Berks CART is activated by our Berks County Emergency Management Office). It is a highly effective and efficient private/public/government partnership that allows first responders to focus on people, while animal professionals and trained volunteers focus on animals.
Humane Society of Berks County was (and Humane PA remains) the only animal welfare agency in the State which took on direct control of their County CART. We felt it was an obvious fit- we had the resources, the knowledge, the trained volunteer base, and paid staff who we could assign to respond. We also felt it was our obligation to be prepared for the animals in our community.
So when we were asked what we would do, we pointed to what we had already done, because we have always tried to look ahead to the next crisis we may face, not just deal with past problems. Since the formation for Berks CART in 2004, we have been activated several times for storms, snow, and major flooding events. We’ve operated shelters for animals and pioneered co-located shelters as standard practice (housing pets with their people instead of in separate shelters).
We’ve run shelters in other counties when their own county response was missing. Our volunteers and staff have been called to assist and manage response efforts following Katrina, the Joplin tornadoes, and Hurricane Sandy. We’ve been asked to present our model to other shelters at the Humane Society of the United States national conference (coincidentally in New Orleans on the 10th anniversary of Katrina). Our staff has served on other counties’ CARTs and planning bodies and we have served on the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania State Animal Response Team.
As a result of Katrina, plans and protocols are already in place to aid animals and people in the Gulf Coast today. New Federal laws were passed requiring animals to be considered in emergency planning. We’ve been quietly responding and preparing in our neighborhood, as well as helping in other regions. We’ve built a stockpile of emergency materials, caging, fans, heaters, generators, food, and supplies.
But the enormity of Hurricane Harvey is a reminder that “the big one” could hit us and even with our preparations and experience, we will be woefully under-resourced. This is something we shouldn’t be quiet about. Humane PA is currently in the middle of major organizational planning for next year, and years beyond that. We have been discussing how we can undertake what we are referring to as preparation for a generation. This means laying the groundwork to address the needs of animals for the next two decades. The needs of today and the needs that will come down the pike tomorrow, next year, the next decade.
Emergency response is one of those needs. I hope that you will begin thinking about your emergency plan. I hope you will support the organizations working to save lives in Texas by donating, such as GreaterGood, which is flying out animals from flooding shelters, thanks in part to the work of our good friend and PA’s own Denise Bash. And I hope you will remember that being prepared means having strong local organizations like Humane Pennsylvania serving our Lancaster and Berks County communities- and beyond- and you support us as well.
We will be sharing our needs and plans very vocally in coming months. Until then, give, share, and volunteer. And remember that we’ve been here, ready to help because of your support, all along.