FEMA:  Pet Issues are People Issues

“Historical Incidents have shown that citizens may refuse to evacuate from a disaster area when first responders will not provide for the care of their pets.  Considering [this] fact, ensuring animal welfare by incorporating household pet and service animal considerations into emergency operational plans is vital to protecting human life and safety.”

-FEMA report

Part 1

hurpicMonday, August 29, 2005 –Hurricane Katrina hit land, again, this time along the Gulf Coast centering on Louisiana and Mississippi.  What would ensue is one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States,  and subsequently, one of our country’s biggest and costliest rescue and recovery efforts.  One result was to bring into focus some of the shortcomings of the domestic disaster response network managed by local responders and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  In the wake of Katrina, a broad effort was made to utilize what was learned from the successes and failures to improve preparedness for and response to disasters.  One of the results of this effort was the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS Act) of 2006.

I am a member of my County Animal Response Team (CART).  It is a CART’s role to be local responders to an emergency who take care of any animals involved and free up other organizations to take care of the people unhindered.  Our CART functions within FEMA’s Incident Command Structure.  Last summer, we joined CART’s from other regions at a conference where representatives from several rescue agencies and organizations gave lectures and presentations about their experiences in various disasters from Katrina, to the Greensburg Tornado, to more localized events such as flooding or animal cruelty raids by law enforcement.  It was at this conference where I first heard Jono Anzalone give the FEMA presentation about its role in disasters and, specifically for that conference, its role for animals in disasters and the effects of the PETS Act.

Interlaced with all the facts and procedures of the presentation was this simple, repeating theme, “Pet issues are people issues.”  It was so pervasive it came off as an official FEMA “talking point” (I found out later it was, in fact, a talking point).  I only had to connect a few dots to arrive at why this simple tenet was included throughout the presentation:

Many people don’t consider pets to be as important as some of us do.  They don’t understand the level of care we give pets on a day to day basis, and especially don’t understand how pets can be such a priority in the face of calamity where people’s lives hang in the balance. 

Bridging this divide between people who appreciate the human-animal bond, and people who do not is central to the mission of Game Dog Guardian.  With “Help People. Help Dogs.”  Game Dog Guardian believes that “pet issues are people issues,” not only during a disaster, but also in everyday life.

In the wake of Katrina FEMA noted, “Prior to the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, storm evacuees refused to leave their residences because the first responders would not allow their pets to evacuate with them.  This endangered or costs the lives of both the owners and their pets.”  FEMA learned from Katrina as well as other disasters, that if they wanted to save more people, they were going to have to deal with their pets.

I met with Mr. Anzalone, the Regional Voluntary Agency Liaison for FEMA Region VII, to discuss what lead up to the passage of the PETS Act, what its passage means to future victims of disasters and their pets, and what lead FEMA to believe that “pet issues are people issues.”

In the next part we’ll look at the interview and how and why FEMA made plans to help our pets.

Part 2

fema_logoFirst, it is important to understand that FEMA is a government organization that is bound by law.  By law FEMA cannot divert from what it is allowed to do.  Therefore, if it isn’t in the laws governing FEMA they can’t do it.  Period.

Second, FEMA has no assets of its own.  It doesn’t have a fleet of trucks or construction equipment or secret black government helicopters.  What FEMA does have is deep pockets (during a disaster anyway) and a lot of human capital.  They have, or have access to, a ton of knowledge and expertise and what they do best is help strategize for and manage an emergency, and then help the local government powers finance and enable the decided upon strategy.

(J: Jono Anzalone, Regional Voluntary Agency Liaison for FEMA Region VII)

(A: Anthony, GDG)

J:  “People always say, ‘where are your Blackhawk helicopters and where are your boats?’ and we just don’t own any equipment.  [O]ur appropriation every year is miniscule, except for when there is a disaster.  So all this planning that could be done ahead of time we can’t do.  Especially when it comes to pet planning, because, unless we have ‘disaster dollars,’ as we call them, we can’t do it.”

NOTE:  It is important to notice here that FEMA only really has money during an emergency.  FEMA’s lack of funding during “peace” time is why it is important for local groups to do the planning on their own.  There is some money available due to post-Katrina changes and through the Department of Homeland Security, but those funds are for local and state groups, not FEMA.  This money is discussed below.

A:  “So FEMA’s main resource is ‘skill sets?’”

J:  “Absolutely.”

A: “Just people who know what to do with other people’s resources?”

J:  “It’s kind of a joke – our people often refer to FEMA as “the checkbook” and that’s often the case as our customer is the state and local government and legal entities under those governments.  So we can reimburse them for the work they do, but very rarely are we able to come in and take over, so to speak…sheltering, feeding, bulk distribution…we can support, but direct action is always a last option.  We want to make sure the Stafford Act laws apply, which [say]: [t]he state has exhausted all of its own resources.”

J: “The example I use with animal sheltering is, even if there is terrible lack of care for pets in a disaster, until the state makes a request of us and says ‘we need help with veterinary care or feeding of animals or finding a facility for sheltering of animals,’ we can’t, by law, go in and do it.  That request has to come through the state.  Most importantly because they [the state] end up paying a portion of that cost.  It’s what is called a ‘cost share agreement.’”

There is an important message under Anzalone’s descriptions of how FEMA works:  The federal government can’t just sweep in and save us.

Take a minute to let that sink in…Now translate that into every other aspect of your life (I wish).

I’ll say it again:  The federal government can’t just sweep in and save us.

We have to do for ourselves.  We have to be prepared to handle our own issues.  Disaster relief planning and execution starts locally. It has to.  The local authorities are the ones who know the needs of the area and by definition, they are the closest ones to a disaster.  What the federal government can do is come in and help after the local authorities have started.  They can support with logistics and can help pay for some of the effort, which can expand the amount of resources available.  However, they will not, and legally cannot, do it for us.

J:  “One of the things I hear a lot is ‘my local government isn’t doing any animal planning.’  There is tons of Homeland Security dollars that come from the federal government to the states that go directly to the locals and those funds can be used for pet planning and pet response.  There is grant request guidance that gives the idea of the types of things that are eligible to be covered by Homeland Security dollars.  Sometimes people are told ‘we can’t use the money for that,’ but yes you can.  If private citizens know what this money, their tax money, can be used for, they are more likely to gain access to those funds.  Public education is the key to preparedness.  And like we said at the beginning, FEMA is really the last option.  It really does have to mean that the locals have done everything they can and the state has done everything it can, and that’s the way it should be.  It gives locals control of their communities…until it goes wrong and then everyone blames FEMA, often times not understanding the way things are supposed to work.”

One of the ways FEMA can get involved during non-disaster times is to help spread “best practices” of the disaster response and relief world.  They can help bring people together and share knowledge and lessons and either help arrive at sound ideas or simply make recommendations based on past experiences.  One issue that came to light recently is that people’s love of their pets, and FEMA’s lack of a plan for them, was costing lives.  A significant number of people wouldn’t leave their homes before and after Katrina, and in other disasters for that matter, without their pets.  Having a plan for pets became a necessary part of having a plan to save people.

A: “When was it decided that changes were needed?  Did these changes come from experience on scene or were they crafted from data gathered after the fact?”

J: “A lot of it was obvious when people were reluctant to evacuate their houses during Katrina.  We were bound by law, in terms of what we could reimburse local and state governments for.  So some of it was us going to our policy makers and saying ‘this needs to change’ but it was also grass-roots organizations saying ‘this is ridiculous,’ so I think it was attacking the issues from both sides.”

A:  “Was this something that caused enough stress up front that made it an issue on people’s minds or was it something that you noticed on the back-side when you were going over the numbers of who would and wouldn’t leave or evacuate?”

J: “I think a lot of the key changes in what we’re able to do now came from things we knew we should be doing but unfortunately [they] didn’t make it through the legal system in time to allow us to do them.  Unfortunately it takes larger events for people to notice ‘this doesn’t work and it has to change,’ so they write their congressmen and senators.  It literally does take an amendment to the Stafford Act for us to be able to certain things new or different.”

Tomorrow we will continue to look further into the PETS Act, who supported it, opposed it, and what it changes and how it affects people and animals.  Also, later we will look at potential conflicts between the PETS Act and BSL.

Part 3

Camp Katrina(J: Jono Anzalone, Regional Voluntary Agency Liaison for FEMA Region VII)

(A: Anthony)

A:  “Who were some of the main driving forces behind the PETS Act?”

J:  “The PETS Act was part of broad and sweeping post-Katrina reforms to the Stafford Act.  The (Humane Society of the United States) HSUS was key, the (American Veterinary Medical Association) AVMA was instrumental and they continue to be, but also from the federal side the USDA and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) were really key from the federal side saying ‘look there are certain things the Stafford Act doesn’t address and needs to be addressed in terms of new policies.’”

A:  “I noticed in your presentation how much you tried to sell these reforms and reassure people that taking care of pets does not mean abandoning people.  Was that just general circling of the wagons or was that a response to negative feedback from someone or somewhere?”

J:  “Overall, there is always going to be competing interest groups.  I think one of the misnomers is that we are putting people in second place with [the PETS] Act.  Certainly there is a big movement right now in planning for children in emergencies.  There are strong advocates in that group who say we’ve got our priorities messed up.  It’s not the Children’s Working Group that is saying this, it is some of the groups who have very extreme views and feel strongly that children should come before people with disabilities, before pets, etc. “

J:  “Our approach is very holistic and balanced.  We can’t just say one particular group is more important than another.  We have to look at all groups and how can we maximize our relief/response/recovery efforts and incorporate people, children, people with disabilities as well as pets. ”

A:  “Would you say that is the duty of a government agency to have that holistic approach and to try to do the most good for the most people?”

J:  “Absolutely.  I always remind people that we work for them, and whatever the collective voice tells us we need to do, we need to be doing.  And the collective voice, generally speaking, agrees that pets need to be included.  That’s what we do then.  Now if it was 2% of the population, we may have some concerns and may ask some questions, but even with that small number it doesn’t necessarily mean that is the wrong thing to do.  So it’s not always majority rules.”

A:  “So was there any political resistance such as Congressman X supports this reform act and Congressman Y opposes it?

J:  “No I think overall there has been very little opposition.  I’ve personally not heard from any state or agency that I’ve worked with saying ‘this is ridiculous’ because this relieves them of bearing 100% of the financial obligations of having to provide that support.  Which can be costly, very costly, to do.”

Money has a way of bringing people around.  Whether enthusiastic or apathetic about them in society, pets are still a reality in an emergency.  There are people who won’t evacuate without their pets, there is a need for temporary shelters, and a need to contain roaming pets for safety and health issues, among other needs.  Someone has to cover these costs, and if FEMA didn’t incorporate these realities into their planning, response and approved spending then local agencies would be stuck putting out 100% of the effort and footing 100% of the bill.

Some understood the bond people share with their pets and felt the PETS Act is appropriate on face value.  Other support came from rescuers in the field and people with practical experience who simply felt this was a necessary and pragmatic approach to improving preparedness and disaster response.  However, there was still enough caution that FEMA felt the need to spread the message that they still put “people first.”

A:  “So who suggested you include ‘pet issues are people issues’ as a talking point in your presentation?”

J:  “Our headquarters in Washington D.C. works on all the policy implementation but it also gives us talking points.  So I just incorporate them into everything I do.”

A:  “Well it was obvious that is was a talking point.”

J:  “Oh yeah.  We do try to cover that end because I go to human services conferences, such as the Children’s Working Group and I had to remind them that pets are just one of the many things that the federal government needs to support states on, and there are other issues like that as well that are equally important.”

For some people having a plan to save pets came from a moral, “it’s just the right thing to do” place.  For others, having a plan to save pets was akin to having boats and helicopters available to transport people to temporary shelters – it was just a part of good planning to save and accommodate the most people.  Whatever the reason, the PETS Act made some concrete changes on what rescuers were allowed to do and when they were allowed to do it.  In the next part we will look at these changes.

Part 4

The biggest effect of the PETS Act was to broaden coverage for pets under the umbrella of federal planning and funding.    Everything else stems from this.  After the PETS Act, there were subsequent state bills that addressed the same thing.  Recognizing the importance of pets, then agreeing to fund their care and rescue, is what cleared the way to plan for pets in the evacuation, sheltering, and recovery.  It also allowed for changes and more forward thinking about pets in the course of a disaster.

When crafting the PETS Act, legislators limited its effect to “household pets” and “service animals” and not all animals in general.  This acknowledged that while animals play a role in many parts of our lives, there is a special bond between people and their pets and service animals.  However, it didn’t mean that no one looks after “non-pet animals.”

(J: Jono Anzalone, Regional Voluntary Agency Liaison for FEMA Region VII)

(A: Anthony)

A:  “I noticed you made a distinction between ‘pet animals’ and ‘non-pet’ or ‘commercial animals’ when you were talking about the PETS Act.  Is it the FDA and the USDA who handle ‘non-pet animals’?

NOTE:  The PETS Act also covers service animals.

J:  “Yes.  One of the downfalls of the law that was passed was ‘household pet’ in law.  It says we’re allowed to do X, Y and Z for household pets which precludes us from everything else, largely because the FDA and the USDA have laws that address those things outside of household pets.  It was up to us, then, to determine what a household pet is, and that was almost a 2 year process because we had a work group that was FEMA, non-FEMA, Humane Society, AVMA and all these interest groups.  You can imagine how many different people were saying ‘here is my definition of a household pet,’ and it just kept going back and forth.  At some point you just have to compromise.  Not everyone is going to be happy but if you get a pretty good consensus…”

One of the biggest changes and more proactive policies was to create a way for people to evacuate ahead of a disaster with their pets.  FEMA estimated that over 1,800 people and about 600,000 pets died in Katrina.  It is known that at least some of the lives that were lost were people who wouldn’t leave without their pets.  So providing a way for people to evacuate with their pets would obviously save some of those pet lives, but also would save the lives of people.  Additionally, if the pets were left behind, somebody has to corral them for humane and safety reasons and that responsibility falls on the rescuers and responders.  If the pets evacuate with their owners, many are taken “off scene” and are no longer the concern of the front line responders.

One way FEMA has recommended to evacuate people and their animals, is to have specific buses or modes of transportation that are allocated to travel with people and animals.  This can provide a method where the people involved in the transport can expect to deal with animals and be trained or at least prepared for accompanying issues.  Also, if there are specific areas set up to deal with these people and their pets, the trips can be consolidated.

NOTE:  In disasters like Katrina and the Greensberg tornado there were a lot of lessons learned about how to reunite pets with owners and how to protect pets from thieves, opportunistic people, and from people who “mean well” but end up doing more harm than good.  Emergency responders do care about these issues, but that is a completely separate article.

One of the struggles in sheltering in the aftermath of the storm was the availability of goods and supplies.  One of the post-Katrina changes to the Stafford Act was to expand the preparations FEMA could make leading up to a disaster.

J:  “There were a lot of considerations in the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act which allowed for the pre-placement of commodities and relief supplies ahead of a disaster that weren’t there before.”

NOTE:  In the disaster response world these locations where assets are placed are called “staging areas.”  The deployment of staging areas is strictly guided by the Stafford Act and this was one of the problems responders ran into when trying to help with Katrina.

J:  “Legally we weren’t allowed to do much in terms of ‘leaning forward.’  Now we joke, we call it ‘FEMA Flexible’ because we are allowed to ‘lean’ far, far, far forward.  So far forward we could fall over.  But that all came out of just allowing us to be more flexible in meeting the states needs.”

A:  “So have you established permanent staging areas or do you wait until you anticipate a disaster and then establish them as quickly as you can?”

J:  “Mainly the second.  We do have some pre-positioned supplies, but the majority of our procurement is done through private procurement.  So typically it is a lot cheaper for us not to have a big warehouse full of stuff when we can just go to [a store] and buy a whole bunch of stuff very quickly…and we do have those agreements in place so we can do that at a moment’s notice.”

“Same thing with the pets…people will ask ‘how many crates do you have, or kennels?’ and the answer is ‘none.’  It is so costly for upkeep, maintenance, etc, that it’s easier for us to have a supplier agreement in place to be able to execute within 24 hours.  And, it’s usually quicker than moving it from a warehouse.”

Sheltering people and animals can be a huge expense.  Some of the recommendations have tried to consolidate some of these expenses as well as the manpower involved in each.  (There are guidelines when it comes to caring for pets near people that address the health and safety issues that need to be followed.)  Some of the expenses of temporary shelters for pets can be alleviated by having the affected population assist in the care of their own animals.  Rather than occupying rescuers time with the care of the animals, the temporary animal shelters can be set up in close proximity to the temporary people housing, enabling the owners to care for the animals themselves.

Besides the logistical benefit of having people care for their own pets, there is potentially a psychological benefit as well.  There was a belief among some that having family pet(s) to care for in the middle of that kind of chaos, could have a positive psychological effect on the people concerned.

A:  “You mentioned in your presentation that having pets close can help to ease the transition in the recovery effort…”

J:  “Absolutely.  The psycho-social effects have not been in any of the federal plans… it talks about it briefly here about the importance of keeping pets with their owners and why ‘practically’ it is beneficial..it keeps people from worrying, etc.  But outside of that you’ll get lots of anecdotal stories about that stuff and I know first-hand from working in [people] shelters that people worry a lot about their pets.  We have brought in therapy dogs numerous times and it just calms the spirit.  Even people who really don’t like animals seem to like them in that environment.”

Next time: the PETS Act and BSL.

FEMA: Part 5 – The PETS Act and BSL

Trina1Toward the end of the interview, I asked Mr. Anzalone if there had been any breed-specific considerations in the work groups for the PETS Act:

A:  “Has [BSL] ever come up as far as disaster planning with regard to where big dogs or certain breeds go?”

J:  “No, not on our level.  I’m sure the states have looked at it, but it doesn’t come up much because really what we try to do is just offer the best planning.  [M]ost of the discussions are just if the policies are equitable and good for the states.”

Now, you might wonder why I felt motivated to ask such a question.  Why would the Federal government, with all its responsibilities, take the time to worry about breed-specific issues in its emergency preparedness meetings?

A:  “I just wondered if that had come up since you guys have the check book so-to-speak, and make policy on a federal level somewhat away from the ‘trenches.’  One of the last things that Bush did before he left office was to ban pit bulls from military bases.”

J:  “Are you kidding?”

A:  “No.”

J:  “Well…he’s not my commander and chief any more.  That’s all I’ll say.”

A:  “I remember thinking, ‘Really? Post-Katrina and two wars and you have time to worry about that?’”

J:  “Probably some special interest group I’m sure….”

Isn’t it always…

After this interview, I came across a legal paper that was about just that thing:  the potential for conflict between the PETS Act and local breed specific regulations.  In 2008, Amy Cattafi wrote “Breed Specific Legislation: The Gap in Emergency Preparedness Provisions for Household Pets” for the Seton Hall School of Law Legislative Journal.

You can read it in its entirety here.

She brings up some of the realities of BSL in communities and how it might affect emergency preparedness.  The first and most obvious is that BSL does not prevent people from keeping animals potentially covered under the ordinance.  Towns like Denver, CO and Kansas City, KS have had pit bull bans for decades and they still take in pit bulls (sometimes by the dozens) every month.  So there are obviously still pit bulls, or dogs the city is calling pit bulls, in those towns that would need to be considered in case of an emergency.

She also brings up people who may have recently moved to an area affected with BSL and may not know their dog is illegal.  This seems especially possible when someone has a “mixed breed” dog that may or may not appear to be 51% pit bull or more.  With such arbitrary breed determination, confusion is to be expected.  One person may say 49% and under and another may say 51% or over.  2% of physical traits could make the difference between having a dog that is banned and not.

Take Katrina for example.

She was brought back from New Orleans after the storm.  There were a lot of pit bulls…or pit bull mixes…or short-haired dogs with blocky heads…whatever you want to call them, affected by Hurricane Katrina.  A few rescuers I talked to said that an overwhelming amount of the dogs they worked with could have been called pit bulls.  So a lot of dogs needing sheltering would have been affected by any potential breed restrictions in this case.  And on the other end of that, these dogs went all over the country to find homes, some of which might be in BSL-affected areas with the owners unaware, having never needed to keep up on that in the past.  When Katrina the dog went to her new forever home, she ended up in a town that had BSL.  The new owner was not aware of it when she adopted Katrina from the rescuers.  Even though there were no breed restrictions to worry about in shelters in New Orleans, had a disaster happened in her new home town, there very well could have been breed restrictions to worry about in that temporary shelter.

Arbitrary breed determination is a huge waste of time and money under normal circumstances on a good day.  I can’t imagine a worse use of manpower, time and resources than determining what breed a dog is during an emergency.  Ms. Cattafi asks, “Is a disaster enforcement official, delegated to maintain order at an evacuation shelter, expected to stand guard with this list of characteristics, prepared to evaluate and designate each dog that enters the shelter as not a pit bull?”

Emergency responders do have to make safety-related decisions when handling animals.  But taking the time and effort to determine breed when lives hang in the balance seems extremely silly.  Not only that, but there is a risk that people who own the breed in question will not evacuate if they can’t bring their pet, as we have seen in previous disaster situations, and then lives are put at risk over a meaningless and arbitrary title.  It would be much easier to make a simple decision based on the behavior of an animal that it is either safe or not safe to handle.

These concerns do not apply only to pit bulls.  There are dozens and dozens of breeds affected by bans or restrictions in different areas.  Towns like Fairfield, Iowa restrict several breeds by name and then any dog over 100lbs.   Eupora, Mississippi recently passed an ordinance that declares “Rottweilers, Dobermans, Chows, Dalmatians or wolf hybrids, pit bull terrier type dogs, and any type or breed of dog used as a guard or attack dog, such as German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois, over the age of 6 months will be considered “prima facie” evidence of a dangerous dog.”  Enforcing civil restrictions in those areas during an emergency could get down-right ludicrous, involving bringing scales to temporary shelters or having someone to decide if a breed of dog has ever been used as a guard or attack dog, which would encompass a great number of breeds.

Considering the wide variety of dogs that are affected by BSL in different areas, the responders to a disaster covering a wide swath of territory such as hurricane Katrina could be faced with a situation where certain breeds and dogs are permitted in one town and are not permitted in the next town or even the neighboring state.  The lack of a standard procedure would just complicate and slow down the rescue and relief efforts.

Ms. Cattafi’s solution is to amend the PETS Act to contain a “temporary exemption from the sanctions and requirements that may accompany a breed ban for the time necessary to overcome disaster or emergency.”  She rightly points out that “[s]tate and local governments have the power to implement laws necessary to ensure the safety of their residents and the public as a whole.”  So a “temporary exemption” would provide a sound course of action that still preserves the rights of the states.  In emergency situations, it is vital we don’t make the situation worse by adding arbitrary and complicating factors.  People’s lives can be lost.  Adding a blanket amendment that would apply only in cases of emergencies would eliminate a contentious issue that saps time and resources.  This solution would allow the rescue to move forward unencumbered.   Making this decision in a time of relative calm would save the on-scene rescuers from having to deal with this issue amidst the chaos of the aftermath of a disaster.

One would hope in a time of disaster that one would not have to worry about such things as breed restrictions.  You would like to think that the people there to help you would just help you and your dog get to safety.  You would like to think that times of need can bring out the best in us.  Unfortunately, just being alive and trying to live a life with your dog is enough to fire-up the anti-pit bull crusaders.  Who knows how opportunistic some fanatic or some lazy politician might try to be when there is no one left standing to fight them?…