As Hurricane Harvey pelted Houston with heavy rains, 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. “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 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.
More than 30 U.S. states now have laws that address disaster planning for pets and service animals.
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.
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 that allow for more nimble and organized responses, Pacelle said.
Arrangements have greatly improved since 2005, but are not ideal. One Corpus Christi couple 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. “Nobody is passing laws saying you should rescue the toasters. It’s really a huge, fundamental shift that happened.”