Animal Disaster Response Using One Health Solutions – Case Studies of Responding to Animal Disasters: Hurricane Sandy, Joplin Tornado and COVID-19

By Michelle Grundahl, Biodefense MS Student

At the One Welfare World Conference on 15-16 September 2021, Michelle Grundahl, a student in the Biodefense MS program, presented a short talk, “Animal Disaster Response using One Health Solutions – Case studies of responding to animal disasters: Hurricane Sandy, Joplin Tornado and COVID-19.” Grundahl’s talk and the One Welfare World Conference took place during National Preparedness Month (September). Also, October is National Animal Safety and Prevention Month.

The presentation discussed the lived experiences of implementing One Health and Welfare during emergency responses involving companion animals. The three cases used were Hurricane Sandy, the Joplin Tornado, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the response of which all included a One Health approach. One Health is the recognition of the inextricable link between human health, animal health, and environmental health. Highlighted in the presentation were practical solutions that achieved optimal human and animal well-being during times of disaster. The human-animal bond can affect compliance with official emergency orders. When people cannot take their whole family (including pets) out of disaster zones, they might choose to stay in the danger zone.

A key consideration for emergency management involving animals is the human-animal bond. An ideal goal is to maintain human-animal safety (and well-being) during disasters. Physical safety and mental comfort for people (and their pets) result in optimal welfare. The tactics implemented in these responses, namely mass sheltering or mass feeding efforts, resulted in positive outcomes for people and their pets. What will future disasters entail? Will they be natural or man-made? Could climate change exacerbate these disasters? Will Disease X be pandemic influenza that is virulent and zoonotic? Could the future of disasters in America involve biological terrorism?

Why do we prepare for disasters involving animals? The statistics are fuzzy, but, about 68% of American households have at least one pet.  Including animals in mass care plans can decrease the health and safety threats to humans as well as animals if the environment becomes hazardous. Safety risks for humans (and pets) can be minimized by using pet evacuation plans. We can mitigate the economic impact of emergencies. We can also prevent, or decrease, the spread of disease. Minimizing animal and human suffering during emergencies is a One Health solution.

Hurricane Katrina is an unfortunate baseline of America’s animal disaster planning. In 2005, Hurricane Katrinaled to historic flooding in New Orleans. This tragedy cost the lives of many humans, but also many pets died or were presumed dead and lost forever. Authorities would not allow petson rescue boats and busses nor in emergency shelters. Since then, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006 (PETS Act) ensures 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.” The lesson learned by government officials (and others) was that emergency management plans only work if people can – and want- to follow them.

On 29 October 2012, unprecedented power outages and flooding in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania accompanied Superstorm (hurricane) Sandy. Many emergency shelters opened, and some of them accepted pets. In Southeastern Pennsylvania, co-located pet shelters opened with the Red Cross because of previous pet sheltering mass care planning efforts. People that needed shelter could bring petsto some of these human shelters. This option helped community members avoid physical danger while taking their animals out of the danger zone. The Bucks County Animal Response Team (of which the author is a member) managed the largest shelter in the region, which operated for seven days and accepted pets. One Health disaster response solutions realize that we must maintain the physical and emotional connections between victims and their pets during an extremely stressful time.

In 2011, an F-5 tornado hit Joplin, Missouri. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Joplin Humane Society managed a massive emergency pet shelter. Three warehouses contained around 1,000 cats and dogs. Maintaining the health of the workers and the animals required serious collaborative effort. People arrived from near and far to adopt approximately 800 animals. The approach of this response leveraged a large scale-up of an emergency animal shelter, and was located in the same community as the incident. This One Health approach used the social sciences to carefully craft its public relations to communicate to the public about how to find their animals and adopt remaining animals.

In February of 2020, we became concerned about a new pneumonia of unknown etiology. Will this be a zoonotic disaster? Will pets get sick? Will the hospitalization or death of people lead to homeless animals who have been exposed to COVID-19 and require sheltering? What infection control procedures, emergency protocols, and kennel plans do we need? The response in Southeastern Pennsylvania was coordinated with local emergency management and included thoughtful messaging to the public. We identified kennel partners, created kennel worker protocols, and considered potential personal protection equipment (PPE) resource challenges to keep both people and animals healthy. As the pandemic unfolded, SARS-CoV-2 instead became an economic disaster for many pet owners. The human economic disruption caused vulnerability and food insecurity for people…and their animals. The One Health response became the creation of pet food donation and outreach. New relationships were forged using human food distribution channels. Drive-through food events and food pantries embraced the new paradigm of including the whole family by allowing pet food to be distributed, too.

A common thread of these disasters is thatthe human-animal bond is a significant factor factored in the decision-making of pet owners during disasters. Emergency management plans can keep all humans safe when pet-owning humans follow the requests of emergency managers. Outcomes for pets and people are improved when community emergency management involves mass care plans for the whole family. When pets and people are safe together during and after a disaster, we see optimal well-being for all.

Plan in advance for your family – and your pets! Never leave your animals behind. When it is not safe for you to stay in a disaster area, it is not safe for them either. Tag or microchip your pets and find pet-friendly hotels as part of your household emergency plan. Reach out to local emergency managers in your community and ask them how to best plan for animals in disasters.

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