Pet Evacuation Drill
By Charlie Chapple
St. Tammany bureau
Some 70 dogs and cats from the St. Tammany Parish and Slidell animal shelters were the focus of attention from almost as many people in Covington on Wednesday during a regional hurricane preparedness exercise.
The dogs and cats, in this case, were guinea pigs closely watched by local, state and federal officials as the parish tested its new pet evacuation plan.
The animals, from puppies to large mixed breeds, played the role of pets dropped off by their owners at the parish fairgrounds livestock arena for evacuation from an approaching hurricane.
They were stroked and petted by volunteers with Noah’s Wish, a non-profit animal rescue organization, who played the role of their owners. They were photographed, tagged, watered and fed by workers with the parish Department of Animal Services, who filled out forms documenting information from their pretend owners. They were then placed in pet carriers and loaded onto an air-conditioned van for trip to a pet evacuation shelter in north Louisiana.
For the exercise, the trip was only to the other side of the livestock arena where Noah’s Wish volunteers took more photographs of the animals, rechecked the information on the paperwork attached to their carriers and placed them in a temporary shelter.
From most accounts, the exercise went well, parish Director of Animal Services Brent Robbins said. “The main thing is to make sure the animals are tagged properly and identified so we can reunite them with their owners,” he said.
Robbins said the exercise was extremely helpful in determining the amount of time it will take to fill out the paperwork and do the documentation to assure a safe and easy return of the animals to their owners.
He timed parts of the drill with a stopwatch and was elated when the time to process a cat or dog for evacuation was reduced from 5 to 2 1/2 minutes.
A new state law requires state and local disaster planners to make provisions for “the humane evacuation” of pets. The law also calls for emergency pet shelters to be located adjacent to those for human evacuees and for establishing a pet tracking system so animals can be reunited with their owners.
On the state level, the responsibility for animal evacuations is with the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry. Veterinarians and other volunteers with the department’s Louisiana State Animal Response Team were at Wednesday’s exercise.
“Our main message is evacuate with your pets. Take them with you,” said Becky Adcock, a veterinarian who is the response team’s public information officer.
For those unable to evacuate with their pets, the parish program offers another path to safety for pets and their owners, parish officials said.
In a real evacuation, Adcock said pet owners, after they turned in their animals, would board a bus to be taken to a shelter next to one housing their pets. That way, animal owners can be near their pets and help take care of them, she said.
Dexter Accardo, director of the parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said exercises like the one Wednesday should help instill public confidence in the new parish plan.
“If you turn your pet in, you’re going to get your pet back,” Accardo said.
The test of the parish pet evacuation plan was included in the regional exercise that involved emergency response officials from St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Washington and St. Helena parishes.
The exercise scenario was a hurricane that hits the region and spawns several tornadoes throughout the four parishes.
Accardo said the exercise, held at the parish emergency operations center in Covington, focused on the four parishes working together during a hurricane and sharing resources, “from hospital beds to bulldozers to clear roads.”
Charlie Chapple can be reached at cchapple AT timespicayune DOT com