Welcome to Laboratories of Democracy, a series for Vox’s The Highlight, where we examine local policies and their impacts.
The policy: Pet evacuation plans for natural disasters
The problem: It all started with Snowball. In the days after Hurricane Katrina inundated much of the Gulf Coast and burst through the New Orleans levies, the Associated Press reported that a boy had his small white dog Snowball taken from him by a police officer before he could get on a bus to be evacuated to Houston. “The boy cried out — ‘Snowball!’ Snowball!’ — then vomited in distress,” the AP reported.
The story was just one tragedy among thousands during and after Katrina, but it caused a large amount of anguish among pet owners across the country. Reports of thousands of abandoned pets and the many people who refused to leave their homes unless they could take their animals with them sparked a change in evacuation policy and a recognition of the strength of the human-animal bond. As for Snowball, there is some dispute as to whether the dog was ever found. Soon after the initial story was published, a federal government official told USA Today that Snowball had been reunited with its family.
In the massive Katrina evacuation, both out of New Orleans to avoid the floodwaters and then out of the state entirely, “a lot of people had top-down directives to not allow people to take dogs and cats with them, and bringing cats and dogs to sheltering spaces was not thought of. That caused a lot of distress and there was a huge outcry,” Sarah DeYoung, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies evacuation decision-making, said.
The impact of Katrina on animals and their companions was enormous. According to a survey by the Fritz Institute, nearly half of those who chose to stay behind during Katrina said they didn’t want to leave their pets. One Mississippi veterinary official told the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association that about a quarter of the deaths in one county hit hard by the storm came from people staying with their pets rather than evacuating.
While there’s no exact count of the number of pets left behind, estimates range from 200,000 to 600,000 from the over 1.5 million people evacuated from the Gulf Coast region. Pets continue to be a priority during evacuations — during the recent fires in Northern California, many pets were left behind as people fled the oncoming flames, leading to a large grassroots effort to reunite people and their animals.
The effects on people who lost their pets but survived are dramatic as well. One study of African American single mothers who had been affected by Katrina found: “Pet loss significantly predicted postdisaster distress, above and beyond demographic variables, pre- and postdisaster perceived social support, predisaster distress, hurricane-related stressors, and human bereavement.”
That people refused to leave rather than abandon their pets or were traumatized by losing them should not be a surprise. While this would not be news to nearly any pet owner, many people view companion animals as essentially members of their families.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, David Grimm, the author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, said many people saw pets as family members. “People saw animals dying, they see members of people’s families that are dying,” he told Vox.
As anyone who’s ever worked at a general interest news site or a local news station could tell you, people all over the country are intensely interested in pets and deeply, deeply affected by stories of them in danger or separated from people, especially children. “You would see video footage of dogs wading through toxic waters, cats clinging to rooftops, it focused attention not just on the plight of people but the plight of pets,” Grimm told Vox.
The next year, the bitterly divided second Congress of the second Bush administration managed to pass the PETS Act, which was signed by President George W. Bush about a year after Katrina. The law was an amendment to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which is the legal framework for much of the government’s role is disaster relief and assistance to local agencies. The PETS Act instructs local government to include pets in their disaster planning. The rubber hits the road largely at the local level, when states mandate that counties and other smaller agencies come up with plans to accommodate pets during disasters.
“There’s language in this that makes sure that FEMA can provide mass care shelter and assistance to states,” DeYoung said. “What that means is that states can request extra support from FEMA because they’re setting up a co-located shelter where they can request funds to offset planning and accommodating.”
How it worked: More than a decade after Hurricane Katrina, several of the states most frequently impacted by disasters requiring evacuations have come up with strategies to help pets and their people.
In North Carolina, for instance, this has meant setting up shelters that allow people and pets to stay together during evacuations for hurricanes, including, according to the Virginian-Pilot, a shelter in Elizabeth City that was set up in a trailer full of “folded animal crates, food bowls, leashes, pooper scoopers and massive rolls of plastic sheeting” during Hurricane Florence last year.
The Virginian-Pilot reported that “emergency officials deployed dozens of the portable pet shelters” and were able to provide housing for “hundreds of animals.”
When Hurricane Matthew hammered the Southeast in 2016, it was well after the PETS Act was in force and national and local attention was firmly focused on the need to incorporate animals into disaster planning. More than 100 pet owners affected by the storm filled out a questionnaire designed by DeYoung and her co-author Ashley Farmer in March 2017: Just over 70 percent evacuated and nearly all of those who had left before or during the storm did so with at least one pet.
But that did not mean they necessarily knew where to go with them. Some reported having to drive farther to find a pet-friendly hotel or having to stay with non-pet-owning relatives. And just because pet-friendly shelters were in operation, that did not mean pet owners necessarily knew about them. While many people looked online for information about where they could bring their pets, the two researchers wrote that some people reported “social media” had informed them there were no shelters they could bring animals to.
But by putting it to locals, there can sometimes be confusion about how mandates from the state and federal government are carried out. The plans sometimes “do not dedicate extensive planning for sheltering and accommodations for pets in emergencies” and can be “unclear why or how the plans at the state level are being delegated to county planners,” DeYoung and two co-authors found in a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The PETS Act “doesn’t lay out the roadmap” for appropriate services for people and their pets, and states and local agencies are “still trying to figure out what it looks like,” Diane Robinson, the program manager for disaster services at the Humane Society, said, “which is still today a challenge for communities to have disaster plans in place that really meet the demand.” More than 30 states “have laws or emergency operation plans that provide for the evacuation, rescue, and recovery of animals in the event of a disaster,” according to the Michigan State University Animal Legal and Historical Center.
And some people still choose to leave some of their pets behind, DeYoung and Farmer found in their 2019 paper. “‘Outside cats,’ for instance, were left to fend for themselves as they were not used to being inside,” and of the people interviewed, “89 percent of respondents with dogs indicated that they took all pets with them, while 55 percent of respondents with cats took all pets with them.”
Robinson pointed to programs and policies in some of the states most frequently hit by disasters, including North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and California. “The federal government can only do so much; disaster is a local problem that needs a local solution.” When Harvey inundated the Houston area in 2017, one large shelter quickly changed its policies to allow pets inside, NPR reported.
One thing the PETS Act does not do is mandate that hotels and motels accept pets during a mandatory evacuation. According to the fact-checking and debunking website Snopes, false information about this supposed mandate starting popping up during 2017’s hurricane season as Harvey and Irene bore down on the Gulf Coast and East Coast respectively. The rumor was so prevalent that FEMA addressed it on its own webpage, telling pet owners, “Hotels and motels participating in FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance Program do not fall under the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act,” and that they should instead “call the hotel before you go and ask if pets are permitted.”
This common misconception pops up online frequently during disasters and has to be debunked just as often. “Hotels are not required to accept pets in a mandatory evacuation,” DeYoung said. “Some businesses out of good PR or having human compassion,” will, but that’s hardly a national-level policy.
“We want to see that the owners and their animals are able to be housed closely so that human-animal bond remains,” Robinson said. “It’s very healing for them and comforting for them to spend that time [together], to have that one piece of normalcy in their life where they’re providing care for that animal and not just sitting and waiting.”
Matthew Zeitlin is a writer in New York.