Updated: Aug 13
As I sit here, lights flickering, tree limbs crashing down, reading about the tornado watch in Massachusetts, I am reminded of events that changed my life forever. Many years ago I volunteered with American Humane's Red Star Disaster Response team. My first deployment was to Joplin Missouri after an EF5 tornado for two weeks and a few years later I went to Norman Oklahoma following EF4 and EF1 tornados.
Part of my job in Joplin was to interview families and walk them through the hundreds of recovered pets, hoping to spot theirs. We ended with disappointment and tears far more often than we ended with success. One very young boy blamed himself for not being strong enough to hold onto his dog, who was sucked out of his arms and out the window. An elderly woman sobbed as we searched for her little dog, the only thing she had left after she lost her home and husband to the tornado. A family came every day to search for their brown tabby cat among the dozens of brown tabby cats, repeatedly thrilled as they spotted theirs, only to be immediately devastated as they got closer and realized it wasn't. You may think, "Well I wouldn't lose my pet." Of course, that's the plan - but it doesn't always work. This mom was alone with two young kids when the tornado hit and only had time to grab the cat and the kids and run to the bathtub. As the tornado ripped her home apart around her, all she could do was hold her two children down and watch helplessly as the family cat disappeared into the air.
There were of course happy reunifications within the first few days. Many pets were able to go home, while others had to stay because there was no home to go to - but they were visited every day by their humans. As the days went on, the number of reunifications went down. Families stood in line, in the sweltering heat, and left heartbroken day after day. Can you guess what the main factor in the success stories was? A tiny, grain of rice-sized microchip. All pets were scanned and those with chips were immediately reunited with their humans. Unfortunately, we hit many dead ends with microchips that had never been registered. As this was happening, as I watched people reunited with pets who had been carried miles from home, and helped others identify photos of their pets' remains, it occurred to me: my cats aren't microchipped!
But does that really matter? After all, I don’t live in tornado alley. We get blizzards, but I've always been safe. I live in the ocean state and devastating hurricanes are rare - besides, I'm not close to the ocean. You may be reading this thinking the same thing. Perhaps you too are nowhere near areas where serious wildfires or earthquakes or flooding occur and therefore have nothing to worry about. I bet many of you don’t truly believe it would ever happen to you. I mean, not really. And maybe it won't, BUT whether or not you are in an area that is prone to a particular type of natural disaster, everyone everywhere is vulnerable in some way or other. House fires, chemical spills, and other human or natural disasters do not pick and choose. That’s the thing about disasters – they are unexpected and can happen to anyone anywhere. It’s the unpreparedness, the disruption, the chaos that throws everything into a tailspin.
Though you can never completely prepare for a disaster, there are things you can do to make things a little safer for your pets. I encourage EVERYONE with pets to make a plan for what they would do in case of an emergency. After what I experienced, this is exactly what I did.
Current identification. Microchip your pets, ensure you register your chip online and get an updated ID tag and collar if your pets don’t already have one. Mark your calendar to update your online microchip account and ID tags annually. I once deployed with the ASPCA who seized an animal control facility with stolen pets. The few that had tags and the fewer with microchips were reunited very quickly. The others waited days to be photographed, examined, logged, and physically identified. Sadly, most were never reunited and were placed in new homes. The day I got home from Joplin, I made an appointment to get everyone microchipped and I regularly ensure the associated information is current, with back-up contact info.
Arrange for a place for your pets to go. Find out your area’s disaster shelter plan for animals, as not all Red Cross human shelters accept pets. If the disaster is limited to your home or area (such as a fire), having arrangements with a vet or boarding facility will come in handy. A list of pet-friendly hotels and trusted family and friends who your pet knows are also excellent options.
Pack an emergency "go-bag." Include several days of food and freshwater for each pet, litter for cats, as well as blankets, non-breakable dishes, and extra leashes and collars with current ID tags. Be sure to include a flashlight and batteries (stored separately), cleaning supplies, paper towels, garbage bags, a first aid kit, and hand sanitizer. In a waterproof bag, include clear color photos of your pets from multiple angles for identification, current medical records, current copies of prescriptions, and a list of emergency contact info. Mark your calendar to check your supplies and replace expired food every three months. My bag lives in my bathroom closet.
Write down a plan and share it. Discuss with family and friends a few options just in case. Come up with several plans, let them know where your go-bag is, write it all down, and share it.
If you do all of this, I truly hope it's a waste of your time. I hope your emergency bag isn’t needed for years – I’ve had mine for over a decade and have replaced expired food several times! But I would so much rather make the effort and not need it, than lie awake in an emergency shelter, wondering where my pets are, and wishing I had done more. My goal here wasn't to tell a depressing story, but rather to help you to realize the magnitude of disasters and the unforeseen circumstances that can occur. I hope it helps.
ASPCA free safety pack
Including a “Save My Pet” window sticker: www.aspca.org/form/free-pet-safety-pack
Red Rover disaster advice
HSUS disaster advice