CITYWIDE — When a disaster strikes, Santa Monica residents will likely have access to emergency shelters to keep them safe while they and first responders deal with the aftermath.
Unfortunately for Fido, facilities like those run by the Red Cross have a “no pets” policy, with the exception of service animals like seeing eye dogs, meaning people have to choose between their safety and their companions.
City Hall wants to change that.
The Office of Emergency Management is working with several pet-friendly shelter groups to create a new kind of shelter specifically for residents’ furry friends.
These shelters would ideally be set up next to the main human shelter to give pet owners access to their animal for comfort and care.
“This was brought to us because people love their pets, in some cases more than they love their spouses,” said Paul Weinberg, emergency services coordinator with the Office of Emergency Management.
Pet safety is a big factor of human safety.
When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, emergency responders found people who refused to leave their homes because they could not bring their animals with them, Weinberg said.
Despite that, almost a quarter of a million animals were displaced by the storm, some ending up on the West Coast before they could be reconnected with their owners.
To prepare, City Hall is working with organizations like Noah’s Wish, a northern California operation that specializes in pet shelters, and local veterinarians and trainers to make sure all the pieces are in place to make them a reality.
Donna Ganguet, chief operating officer at Noah’s Wish, has coordinated her share of pet shelters.
Noah’s Wish has been around since 2002, forming alliances with emergency response groups and training volunteers to help staff the shelters and, when conditions warrant, traveling across the country to create a shelter themselves.
“It’s usually fires and wildfires, but also hurricanes and tornadoes,” Ganguet said. “You name it, we’ve done it. We were at the terrorist attack in New York City caring for some of the animals doing the recovery.”
There are 300 to 400 trained Noah’s Wish volunteers in southern California and a trailer up north packed with special supplies needed to set up a shelter in case of an emergency.
That trailer has first-aid supplies for animals as well as the paperwork needed to track the animals as they come into the shelter, but one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal is crating, Ganguet said.
“The big thing that usually a location won’t have is crating. In order to set up the shelter, you have to have containment areas for each animal,” Ganguet said.
Locations can include almost anything that provides some separation from humans.
The Red Cross does not allow most animals inside their shelters because of the diversity of people who have to fit into a shelter together, said Monica Diaz, a spokesperson for the Red Cross.
That can include people with allergies and other medical conditions, or even those who are simply afraid of animals.
Still, the Red Cross tries to make an effort to work with other agencies to find a place for pets, Diaz said.
“A pet is a member of the family and we do want to try to help you,” she said. “We have a list of pet-friendly hotels and animal welfare agencies we’re working with.”
Organizations like the Pennsylvania State Animal Response Team, a nonprofit that works on the East Coast, try to set up immediately adjacent to wherever people are.
“We ask for a separate room or facility that’s close enough that people who evacuate with animals can come and visit and help care for them while both are in the shelters,” said Joel Hersch, executive director of the nonprofit.
Hersch’s team rolled out this month in reaction to Hurricane Sandy, which caused power outages across Pennsylvania and forced many people from their homes.
“We had 25 shelters open in 18 of our counties, and 23 of them were what I would call co-located in the same physical building,” Hersch said.
It’s taken several years to get decision makers to see the value of the pet shelter, but they’re coming around.
Hersch only counts the upsides, like encouraging people to get out of their homes rather than try to ride out disastrous weather events, thereby protecting first responders from entering dangerous situations to save them.
Keeping pets close can help safeguard physical health, but it also plays a big role in mental health.
Claire Gillenson is a grief counselor in the Los Angeles area who specializes in pet loss, amongst other things.
Pets play an important role in the lives of their owners, and being forced to part with an animal or leave it in a dangerous situation can be devastating, she said.
Many of these people can be empty nesters, the elderly, or others who like feeling needed and caring for someone.
“Understand what it means to them. For them, it means telling them that they cannot bring a member of the family with them. It’s not just a pet,” Gillenson said.
Although having a place to go in an emergency is important, preparing for one at home is equally vital, and people often forget their pets.
Ganguet suggests a “doggy bag” with medications, vaccination history, serial numbers for any microchip that can be used to locate a pet, information about a special diet and a picture of the animal to help with identification later.
A kennel or something to transport the animal in is a must, and food for the pet never hurts.
“We want to do everything we can to get people prepared,” she said. “If they are prepared, everything else just falls into place.”
The Office of Emergency Management has held three emergency pet fairs that have reached thousands of residents to educate them on what they need for their animals in an emergency and where they can get it, Weinberg said. Getting them prepared now will solve future problems before they start, he said.
“People will find a way to do what they do and will not be separated from their pets,” Weinberg said.