Include pets in preparedness plans for climate-related disasters in US

As the Mississippi River reached its recent record-setting crest, a team of emergency responders from animal welfare organizations, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare, ASPCA and the Memphis Humane Society, constructed a temporary animal shelter equipped to house up to 1,000 animals. A search-and-rescue team stood at the ready, waiting for calls to rescue stranded and abandoned pets. It didn’t wait long. A frantic phone call was received from a family whose beloved pets — three dogs and two cats — were trapped in their backyard. The whole neighborhood was flooded; children’s toys and debris floated along together as if it were commonplace, and the family needed to leave before it was too late.

Thankfully, the emergency response team was able to rescue three dogs from the yard and transport them safely back to the nearby emergency animal shelter. The cats, however, were not as excited about the trip. One of the cats ran away from the rescuers and up a tree. Not to be outdone, a search-and-rescue expert rose to the occasion (literally) and climbed the tree to save the cat, which was covered in a grease-like substance and hence named “Diesel” by the staff at the emergency animal shelter. 

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The veterinarians, medical experts and volunteers like these who responded to the floods not just in my home state of Tennessee but also in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and other states affected by record-level flooding cared for hundreds of pets that had been left behind to fend for themselves or that had been purposely taken to emergency animal shelters by caring families who had no other choice. The animals, just like so many of us who are affected by disasters, were cared for by highly trained and compassionate experts while they waited eagerly for reunification with their families and a return trip home.

Unfortunately, climate change-related natural disasters are increasing in both frequency and severity around the globe — hurricanes Katrina and Rita, massive landslides and flooding in Pakistan, and cyclone Yasi and catastrophic flooding in Australia, just to name a few. Over the past several months, devastating tornadoes, record-setting rainfalls and extensive flooding have crippled many U.S. cities and towns. Agricultural lands have been flooded and businesses destroyed, depriving local people of their livelihoods. Closure of the Mississippi River and the loss of crops have had adverse economic impacts across the nation. Now we are faced with a 2011 hurricane season projected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to be above-normal, with a predicted 12 to 18 named storms.

Back in 2005, during Hurricane Katrina, the failure to include animals in city and state evacuation plans complicated disaster-relief efforts, causing death and harm to animals and increasing the already tremendous suffering of the human victims of the disaster. Though disasters of the size and scope of Hurricane Katrina are the exception rather than the rule, the impact of disasters on animals is not. Every year in the United States, fires, floods, hurricanes and other emergencies leave thousands of animals vulnerable. Climate change will only exacerbate the problem, according to the world’s leading experts.

There is an urgent need to ensure that animals are formally considered in disaster preparedness plans, including plans for adaptation to the coming impacts of global climate change. Hurricane Katrina amplified the message that people in our country care passionately about the welfare of animals. Most consider pets to be part of the family, and abandoning them is unthinkable. Others rely on animals not only for companionship, but also for their livelihood. We need to ensure that policy and planning efforts reflect this sentiment, and recognize that supporting animal safety and well-being during disasters is also a significant factor in ensuring the safety and well-being of people.

Cohen is a Democrat who represents Tennessee’s 9th district.