One year ago the rescue of Gulf Coast residents stranded by Hurricane Katrina was just beginning, but the storm refugees were being told their pets couldn’t come along. Creighton University Pharmacy Professor Elaine Lust is a volunteer for V-MAT, a Veterinary Medical Assistance Team that was dispatched by FEMA when the hurricane hit. She says some people refused to evacuate so they could stay with their pets, or the pets were abandoned when they did leave.
Many people along the Gulf Coast left food and water for their pets thinking they would be home in a few days. Others tried to take their pets with them, but were told by relief groups that no animals were allowed in the shelters, and they had to be left behind.
“You just can’t help but have a moment of silence and pray for the people who were affected, whose lives were so radically changed” she says. Some lost homes, some lost a pet and Lust says that’s an emotional thing to deal with, and she felt very sorry for the evacuees. Lust was there for the first two weeks, and her team set up what became the largest field veterinary hospital on record in the U.S.
Lust says it was overwhelming, the number of animals in need, their physical condition as they came in, and just the number of ownerless or stray animals. Nobody had anticipated the needs of pets in a disaster, and Lust says they received thousands of calls from people asking them to pick up their cat or dog or hamster that had been left behind.
Animal rescue groups went in breaking down doors and windows to get them to the shelter. Since the disaster, a Federal act has been passed, called the PETS Act, which requires local and state emergency authorities to include pets in their evacuation plans.
The law has personal meaning to Lust, who says now she’s seen what happens when people don’t prepare for disasters — “whether it’s natural, man-made or a terrorist event.” Most of the animals were sent to shelters in other states, some who’d been linked to owners went to foster homes to wait their reunions. Lust found a kitten separated from its mother and brought it home with her to Omaha. She’s fallen in love with him and nicknamed him the family’s “Louisiana swamp-cat. So he is named Louie, after Louisiana.”
She’s heard estimates that just fifteen-percent of the pets were ever reunited with their owners. The V-Mat volunteers help with emergency services including animal disease surveillance, euthanasia, decontamination, and medical care for animals at disaster scenes.
Related web sites:
Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams