How the chaos of Hurricane Katrina helped save pets from flooding in Texas
As Hurricane Harvey pelted Houston with heavy rains over the weekend, a local television news station broadcast footage of flood evacuees sitting outside the George R. Brown Convention Center. The people weren’t waiting for space inside what would become a massive emergency shelter. They were choosing to remain outdoors because their pets were not allowed in with them.
That policy changed within a day, after a top elected official made clear that both humans and animals were welcome at the city’s evacuation centers.
“We all saw what followed Hurricane Katrina, where people weren’t allowed to keep their pets with them, so they said, ‘Well, never mind, we’ll just stay outside,’ “ Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told reporters Sunday evening. “We obviously don’t want that to happen.”
Emmett wasn’t making just a passing reference to the catastrophe that hit New Orleans in 2005. During that disaster, many residents stayed put - and died in some cases - rather than heed rescuers’ instructions to leave pets behind as waters inundated homes. Others faced wrenching choices when they arrived at shelters that would not allow animals. One small white dog, Snowball, became a national symbol of these emotional separations after he was taken from the arms of a child who was boarding a bus to Texas that did not take pets. The boy cried so hard, according to an Associated Press report, that he vomited.
One 2006 poll found that 44 percent of people who chose not to evacuate during Katrina did so because they did not want to abandon their pets. Even so, the Louisiana SPCA estimated, more than 100,000 pets were left behind and as many as 70,000 died throughout the Gulf Coast.
A dozen years later, Katrina is viewed as a watershed moment in planning for pets during natural disasters. It changed federal and state policies - and, animal advocates and experts say, made clear that Americans have widely embraced the idea of dogs and cats as family members.
“You saw pictures of dogs standing on roofs and cats swimming in these toxic waters, and there was a huge public outcry,” said journalist David Grimm, who wrote about the impact in his book, “Citizen Canine.” Katrina “was a real turning point,” he added, “where suddenly it wasn’t just, ‘This is how I view my pets.’ It’s, ‘This is how everyone views their pets.’ “
At the time, emergency management plans took only people into account. The result was an ad hoc approach to animals, with some responders flat-out turning away dogs and others agreeing to evacuate them. Animal protection groups, which quickly became overwhelmed with displaced critters separated from their owners, often found themselves at odds with local and state officials, recalled Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States.
The sense that systems had failed both pets and people quickly reached Capitol Hill. In 2006, Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation requiring local and state authorities who want federal emergency grants to include pets in disaster plans. It also authorized the use of federal funds for pet-friendly emergency shelters.
Snowball was the impetus.
“The dog was taken away from this little boy, and to watch his face was a singularly revealing and tragic experience,” Rep. Tom Lantos said at the time. The California Democrat, who died in 2008, sponsored the House version of the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act - legislation “born at that moment” with Snowball, Lantos said.
More than 30 U.S. states now have laws that address disaster planning for pets and service animals. Texas requires its emergency management officials to help localities devise plans “for the humane evacuation, transport and temporary sheltering of service animals and household pets in a disaster.”
Not all evacuation centers there are accepting pets this week, but many are accommodating them in separate areas or coordinating with off-site shelters to house them. In San Antonio, for instance, a state-run reception center for Harvey evacuees routes pets to a city-run animal shelter, after assigning them and owners individual ID numbers that will help reunite them later.
The images and stories out of southeast Texas - of rescue boats loaded with dogs and people - are far different from those that emerged during Katrina. Lisa Eicher’s experience offers just one example. When the Conroe resident woke on Monday, floodwaters had nearly submerged the 15 feet of steps up to the first floor of her family’s home. Before she, her husband and four children could pack more than a garbage bag of clothes, firefighters had rolled up outside in a muddy dump truck and were telling them to leave.
“We have two kids with Down syndrome, a pig and a three-legged dog,” Eicher recalled telling them.
“Sounds good,” one firefighter responded. “Let’s do this.”
Soon Eicher’s husband and a firefighter were helping Pip, a terrier mix, swim across the murky water. Next up was Penny, a mottled potbellied pig that floated on a yellow life jacket.
“A dog is one thing, but a pig is different,” Eicher said in a phone interview from Austin, where the family - pets included - are staying with friends. “I was worried that we weren’t going to be able to bring her . . . The fact that they were so good with our pets was really sweet and meant a lot.”
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society both greatly expanded their disaster response divisions after Katrina. The latter now has memorandums of understanding with many local organizations and localities - including the Houston suburbs of League City and Dickinson - that allow for more nimble and organized responses, Pacelle said.
“In a general sense, Katrina was the teaching moment in the United States for people to understand . . . that the lives of humans and animals in our communities are intertwined,” he said. “You couldn’t look at individuals. You had to look at the family group when you approached disaster response.”
Animals that do not remain with owners also have more places to go these days, advocates say. As Harvey approached, several Texas shelters shipped dogs and cats out to distant facilities to make room for furry refugees. Those far-off places, such as the Humane Rescue Alliance in Washington, in turn revved up adoptions to clear even more space.
“We’re working nonstop to get out every single animal that was currently adoptable in some of these cities where we know that these evacuees are going to need to come,” said Katie Jarl, senior state director in Texas for the Humane Society. The organization sent more than 100 shelter animals out of San Antonio between Monday and Wednesday.
Much of the movement is relying on sophisticated transport networks, many of which grew out of the chaos during Katrina. On Tuesday night at 10 p.m., eight mixed-breed dogs - labs, hounds and pit bulls - arrived at the Somerset Regional Animal Shelter in Bridgewater, New Jersey. They had come from San Antonio on a plane flown by Wings of Rescue, a California-based charity that uses private aircraft to fly animals from high-kill southern shelters to northern areas where euthanasia rates are lower.
“We saw a lot of dogs out of that plane getting a second life,” said Brian Bradshaw, who manages the Somerset shelter. “By helping these animals, we are also helping people, and that goes hand in hand.”
The Harvey efforts are by no means “copacetic or settled,” Pacelle said. Citing health concerns, some emergency shelters are turning away people with pets, as are hotels - though both face shaming on social media when they do so. The corporation that owns Holiday Inn Express apologized this week after reports that its Katy, Texas, hotel rejected a family with three dogs.
And though animal advocates say arrangements have greatly improved since 2005, they are still not ideal for some pet owners. One Corpus Christi couple who evacuated to San Antonio opted to go to a hotel after learning that their dog would be temporarily housed at the city-run shelter, rather than with them at an evacuation center.
“This isn’t a dog. This is a child,” Kevin Pogue told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. “I’m not going to be separated from my child; it’s that simple.”
But the fact that Pogue’s sentiment is now enshrined in legal code, which has long viewed pets as property, is one of Katrina’s lasting legacies.
“Pets essentially became members of society: You rescue the people, and you also try to rescue the cats and dogs,” said Grimm, the journalist. “Nobody is passing laws saying you should rescue the toasters. It’s really a huge, fundamental shift that happened.”
Stephanie Kuzydym and Emily Wax contributed to this report from Houston.