You never know when nature’s fury will take aim at your hometown.
On May 21, 2011, the city of Reading, Kan., was in the bull’s-eye. That evening, an EF3 tornado tore through the Lyon County community, killing one person and destroying or damaging about 200 buildings.
A few days later, Sharon Woodrum arrived in the area from Louisburg to help with the disaster relief effort. The Kansas State Animal Response Team had set up a temporary animal shelter in nearby Emporia to house the pets of Reading residents who’d just had their lives blown upside down. When the pet owners had time, they’d come to the shelter to see their animals. Woodrum, who is vice president of the animal response team in Miami County (MiCART), volunteered at this shelter.
“It was a very important job,” Woodrum says. “They had a lot of things on their minds, and if I could give them one less thing to worry about, that’s exactly what I wanted to do.”
She says the Reading experience was humbling. The memories of those days still fill her with emotion.
“Just realizing that they had lost their homes and … that they had lost everything. But they were able to visit their pets and get some comfort there, and know that their pets were being taken care of until they could find a place to keep them.”
The Reading twister was one of 1,691 reported tornadoes in 2011. That figure is the second highest on record for tornadoes in one year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It includes the seventh deadliest tornado in U.S. history: the monster EF5 that roared through Joplin just one day after the Reading tornado. Nearly 160 people died, more than 1,000 people were injured and large sections of the community were flattened.
2011 also brought floods to our region, forcing folks to flee their homes. During the summer, the rising Missouri River spilled into communities on both sides of its banks. All residents in the northwest Missouri town of Craig, for instance, were told to leave; the animal shelter in Leavenworth had to be evacuated. A few months later in southeast Missouri, more than 1,000 Poplar Bluff residents received evacuation orders just before the swollen Black River breached a levee.
In addition to the chaos they can create for people, natural disasters have a way of separating pets from their homes. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says that in 2011, it assisted more than 18,500 animals that storms and flooding affected in the Midwest and South, including more than 1,300 animals in Joplin.
The Joplin Humane Society reports that only about 560 rescued Joplin pets were reunited with their owners. The number of animals killed or still missing is unclear.
While 2011 was a bad year for natural disasters, it is a good example of why disaster preparedness must be taken seriously. And your dog’s needs are an essential part of your personal preparedness plans. Being prepared can’t always prevent the worst from happening. However, it does better your chances that you don’t lose your pet forever should a natural disaster strike.
“No one ever thinks it will happen … but the time to prepare for an emergency is before it occurs,” says J.C. Burcham, president of the Johnson County Animal Response Team.
The most important thing you can do to prepare your dog for a disaster situation is to have it microchipped. The tiny device under your animal’s skin may help you get your dog back—as long as you keep your contact information with the microchip registry current.
“In fact, natural disasters are one of the reasons I tell people to get their pet ‘chipped when they tell me, ‘Oh, my dog would never run off,'” Burcham says. “There are some things we can’t predict. Motor vehicle accidents and natural disasters are two examples of a time when your dog may be too scared or injured to come find you.”
She says another thing every dog owner must do is to make a disaster plan.
“If you needed to evacuate your home, where would you go? Do you have family or friends you could stay with for a few days? Where are the nearest pet-friendly hotels?”
The plan also needs to include what would happen if you are not at home during a catastrophe.
“Talk with your neighbors and friends about what you would do with your pets if you couldn’t go home yourself,” Burcham says. “Establish a meeting place.”
Whomever you designate, make sure they have written permission from you that they are responsible for your pet in your absence. In addition, have at least two copies of an emergency contact list. Keep one with you and place one it your pet emergency kit. Burcham advises that this list include phone numbers for veterinarians, animal shelters and pet boarding facilities.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends that a pet emergency kit have the following:
- at least three days of food in an airtight, waterproof container;
- at least three days of water;
- medicines (in waterproof containers) and medical records;
- a first aid kit, which should include cotton bandage rolls, bandage tape, scissors, antibiotic ointment, flea/tick prevention, latex gloves, isopropyl alcohol, saline solution and a pet first aid book;
- collars (with ID tags) and leashes;
- sanitation supplies, such as trash bags, newspapers and paper towels;
- toys, treats, bedding and other familiar items;
- a picture of you and your pet together to help you document ownership.
Pictures and copies of medical records should be kept in multiple places, including on your cell phone, if possible. Have “Lost Dog” posters made with the dog’s picture, a written description and your contact information. Also, put an “Animals Inside” sticker on a window or door of your home.
When disaster hits
FEMA urges that if you have to leave your home, don’t abandon your dog. When you get back, it may no longer be there, or you may find it hasn’t survived. Like you, the animal needs to be out of harm’s way. That’s why planning ahead is crucial.
When severe weather is in the area, your dog needs to be indoors and somewhere in the house where you can get to the animal quickly. Know where the animal’s leash is in case you have to use it. There may be little time to get to your shelter area once the sirens begin to wail, so the last things you need to be doing are looking for the leash and chasing your dog. If you need to go to your safe area, take the dog with you on its leash and keep the leash on, so your pet doesn’t bolt in fear.
Should your dog go missing, Burcham says, start your search by asking neighbors if they’ve spotted the animal. Post those “Lost Dog” signs. Report to local animal shelters that you’ve lost your pet. Find out if a temporary shelter has been set up for displaced animals. And use social media to help spread the word.
If something happens while you’re away and your dog is at home, don’t go back to your neighborhood unless authorities say it’s safe to do so. You may end up in danger yourself or get in the way of rescuers. Again, here’s another reason why you plan ahead. Try contacting your friends and neighbors, who may already have your dog. Stay tuned to your local media for emergency management plans, which, by law, are supposed to include what’s being done for pets. It’s possible that emergency personnel, upon seeing your “Animals Inside” sticker, have taken your dog to a shelter.
After a tornado or flood, unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells may frighten your dog. There could be downed power lines, sirens and general chaos. Keep a close eye on your dog’s whereabouts, even inside a fenced yard. Dogs have a great talent for escaping when they perceive a threat. Off your property, your dog should be on a leash.
Nature won’t wait on you
An ASPCA-commissioned poll in 2011 revealed that 35 percent of dog and cat owners don’t have a disaster preparedness plan. Putting such a plan together and gathering all that’s recommended for an emergency kit may not be on the top of one’s priority list. Perhaps it’s an “I’ll do it later” or “it won’t happen to me” mentality. But natural disasters can happen at any time, and they can happen to anyone, anywhere.
Like in Joplin. And Reading. And many of our region’s river communities. And in more recent days, Branson, which suffered extensive damage during the 2012 Leap Day tornado outbreak.
Even Sharon Woodrum’s hometown of Louisburg has been the target of nature’s nasty side. While Woodrum was volunteering in Lyon County, a tornado hit Louisburg.
“Being so far away and knowing that a tornado possibly hit my hometown, my thoughts went directly to my dogs,” she says. “Where are they? Are they safe? Are they running around not knowing what to do?“
The damage to Louisburg was slight, and Woodrum was notified that her house and her dogs were fine. But, she says, that event “really brought it home.”
Are you—and your dog—prepared?
Here is a list of animal response teams in the Kansas City area. Contact one if you are interested in volunteer training. Printed copies include “bitly” addresses.
- Disaster Animal Response Team (DART) – based in Independence
- Johnson County Animal Response Team (JoCART)
- Miami County Animal Response Team (MiCART)
- Northland Disaster Animal Response Team (Northland DART)