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Shelters Spotlight: How Shelters Are Finding New Ways to Help Families After Natural Disasters

This 10-part series is brought to you by GOOD, in partnership with Purina ONE®. We've teamed up to highlight inspiring animal shelters around...

This 9-part series is brought to you by GOOD, in partnership with PurinaONE®. We've teamed up to highlight inspiring organizations that are doing innovative and unexpected things to connect with their local communities and promote positive perceptions of shelter pets. Read more about how pets—and the people who love them—can brighten lives and strengthen our communities at the GOOD Pets hub.

When a major flood hit the metropolitan areas of Atlanta, Georgia in September 2009, residents faced the distress of not only putting their homes back together and reconnecting with loved ones, but also worrying about the safety of their displaced pets.

Fortunately for one man who had been caught in the flood away from his house, the Atlanta Humane Society’s Humane Emergency Animal Rescue Team (HEART) was able to rescue his chocolate Labrador, who had been treading water for about 18 hours next to the man’s submerged house. Despite the fact that the Atlanta resident had recently lost his job and was now in a worse off situation, he was overwhelmed with gratitude and personally thanked everyone on the HEART team.

Animal rescue stories like these are not typical. The Atlanta Humane Society can’t legally deploy HEART unless animal control authorities, the sheriff’s department, or Georgia’s Department of Agriculture request their services. In other words, the team doesn’t always respond instantly to any given disaster. But, according to Andrea Peacock, Vice President of Operations for AHS, being mobile has enabled the shelter to assist more people on a larger scale, usually within a 24-hour period. In fact, during the flood of 2009, HEART rescued a total of 22 animals from submerged homes.

With the HEART Vehicle, a 45-foot Toy Hauler RV, AHS expands its reach beyond Atlanta, to the southeast, including Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. A specially outfitted mobile unit with 75 kennels, the HEART Vehicle serves as an incident command center, triage unit, and staging area equipped with medical supplies, Haz-Mat suits, animal handling equipment, and water rescue gear.

Partnerships with the Louisiana SPCA in New Orleans and the Humane Society of South Mississippi also make it possible for AHS to board and treat evacuated animals for longer periods of time so that these shelters can take in more strays after disasters occur.

Atlanta Humane Society’s HEART Vehicle on the road

Like AHS, but on the other side of the country, the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Colorado partners with national and local shelters, and works with city and county municipalities, making disaster relief for families and pets a priority. With a computer inventory system, HSBV is able to catalog animals that enter and leave their shelter so that partnering organizations can reunite pets with families more easily.

Although HSBV does provide pet boarding for families that need more time to get back on their feet, employees have found that most families won’t leave uninhabitable homes unless they can find shelters that allow them to stay with their animals. As a result, HSBV works with organizations like Pet Aid Colorado (PAC), to set up animal shelters within human shelters so that pets can transition through drastic changes less traumatically.

During the 2012 wildfires in Colorado, HSBV housed pets in need of adoption from the Humane Society of The Pikes Peak Region so that HS of the PPR could provide temporary shelters for pets affected by the fires. The collaboration and strong networking between national shelters and Colorado’s local shelters makes it possible for HSBV to transfer more than 4,000 animals across the nation each year.

Lisa Pedersen, Chief Executive Officer of HSBV, stresses that although many community members want to help during disaster situations, the shelter often doesn’t have enough staff to train them. “It’s actually better to volunteer at a shelter on an ongoing basis before a disaster happens,” she says. “If you can’t do that, financial contributions help more than donating food or time, because we can leverage those donation dollars to purchase medical supplies and hire trained staff locally, or deploy certified disaster response experts to regions in need.”

Debrah Schnackenberg, Director of Disaster Services for PAC, appreciates that shelters like AHS and HSBV are moving in the right direction towards emergency preparedness. However, she stresses that more shelters need to become integrated with the overall response plans set by their counties or states.

“Most animal shelters are not working out in the field because by definition they are doing sheltering. It’s what they do best during emergencies. But shelters shouldn’t work alone in a vacuum if they’re doing disaster response. It’s crucial for disaster response team members to take Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) certification courses and animal response training so they can be more prepared to work on the field,” Schnackenberg says.

If you are a pet owner, you can do your part by preparing for a disaster before it hits. Make sure your companion has a collar and tag, as well as an up-to-date microchip so that if you are separated, you can be reunited more easily. Pedersen says, “Have a plan ahead of time. If you live in an at-risk area for wildfires or floods, make a list of relatives or shelters that could take your pet in, and follow disaster preparedness guidelines provided by your state or the Humane Society.”

Photos courtesy of Atlanta Humane Society

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