When disaster strikes...where will you be?

When disaster strikes...where will you be?

You can play a crucial role in helping animals and pet owners in the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and other disasters.
Jun 01, 2012

Face the aftermath: Vehicles and mobile command posts, including the canine search-and-rescue veterinary hospital, fill the view near the high school in Joplin, Mo., after last year's devastating tornado.
In the movie 2012, the main character faces earthquakes, volcanoes, and global flooding—all in a single day. Although you probably won't ever face multiple disasters simultaneously, disaster is something we all need to prepare for.

Depending on where you live, you could encounter earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, floods, tornados, or tsunamis. And terrorist attacks are a potential threat to all of us. Now think of all the animals in your community that would be affected by disaster: not just your patients, but livestock, zoo animals, research subjects, and shelter animals.

Pets during disasters can put people at risk as well. Before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, hundreds of people refused evacuation because they couldn't take their pets along. When people refuse evacuation, they put themselves and emergency personnel at risk. In response, Congress enacted the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act in 2006, requiring state and local governments to account for household pets and service animals in their disaster planning.

However, even five years after the PETS Act, many local communities haven't resolved the issues posed by animals in disasters. Dr. Ben Leavens, whose town of Joplin, Mo., was decimated by a tornado in 2011, says, "In a disaster like we had, people really won't leave their animals behind. There were many people who would not leave for shelters until their animals were taken care of. Some spent the night in the wreckage of their homes because they would not leave their pets." One of his employees was denied entrance at her designated neighborhood shelter as the storm approached because she had brought her dog. She and her dog rode out the storm in her car, with the tornado just barely missing them. "If the tornado's path had gone just a bit different, they would be dead," Dr. Leavens says.

How can we as veterinarians get involved in disaster preparedness and response for the benefit of our communities and our patients?

The first rule of emergency response is: Do not self-deploy. People who show up at a disaster site independent of a formal organization risk becoming casualties themselves. One of the lessons of 9/11 was that a cohesive, nationwide emergency response plan was needed. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) specifies that everyone on scene needs to fit into an established order of command and that all the organizations need to use plain English to communicate, rather than agency-specific codes or jargon. You can take NIMS independent study courses for free online on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website. (Find links to all the websites mentioned in this article at http://dvm360.com/disasterprep/.)

There are both private-sector and public-section options for veterinarians who want to get involved in disaster preparedness and emergency response. Some of those include:

The mission of the Medical Reserve Corps is "to engage volunteers to strengthen public health, emergency response, and community resiliency." Local MRC units include volunteer physicians, nurses, dentists, veterinarians, and pharmacists who are all precredentialed to respond in emergency situations to protect public health. Since the MRC is primarily concerned with human health needs in a disaster situation, veterinarians with MRC units would mainly be dealing with humans and would only address animal issues if resources allowed.

Dr. Val Poll of Coldwater Animal Hospital in North Ogden, Utah, is an MRC unit member, and he says the organization has been thrilled with the willingness of area veterinarians to participate. "We had eight local veterinarians complete the first level of training," he says.

However, Dr. Poll feels that "veterinarians have a specific ability to address the underserved animal population in an emergency," so he is also an active member in his local County Animal Response Team (see below).


Several states have a VMRC, which is similar to the MRC but specifically addresses the needs of animals. Veterinarians and veterinary technicians in the VMRC could be called to investigate and contain animal disease outbreaks, treat animal victims of natural disasters, or decontaminate animals after a radiologic or chemical disaster.