By Joseph Robertia
Catastrophic earthquakes, devastating tsunami, massive wild-land fires, highways and roads washed out by floods or buried by avalanches in winter — these are just a few of the possible crises that could plague the Kenai Peninsula. In worst-case scenarios it won’t just be people, but also their pets, that may need assistance.
“It’s something that was learned after (Hurricane) Katrina,” said Eric Mohrmann, director of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management.
There was no evacuation or shelter plan in place for animals, and many pet owners attempted to stay home during the emergency rather than seek safety in shelters where pets were not allowed. They resisted evacuating without their pets once danger was upon them. For the pets left behind, there was no one to care for them. By the time pets began being rescued, many were never reconnected with their owners.
Under Borough Mayor Dave Carey’s request, and to comply with the 1996 Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standard Act, a 10-person working group has formed and will meet monthly to address this issue in the event of a local or state disaster. It is made up of emergency response personnel from the borough OEM department, representatives from animal shelters in Kenai, Soldotna and Homer, as well as Alaska’s Extended-Life Animal Sanctuary in Nikiski and the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.
“We want to create a plan to shelter pets in an emergency or disaster situation,” Mohrmann said. “We have to look at what a potential problem could be, what is the likelihood of it occurring, and what resources can be put forward.”
Complicating the challenge of responding to a local disaster is the lack of boroughwide animal control, according to committee member Tim Colbath, owner of Alaska’s Extended-Life Animal Sanctuary.
“I can’t find another borough in the U.S. that has over 50,000 residents and doesn’t accommodate for animal rescue services for those residents,” he said. “A lot of other states have city agencies that overlap with county or borough agencies that may even overlap with state agencies. Then, if they’re overwhelmed, the Humane Society or the (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) are within 24 hours away. But here, we have no boroughwide animal control. We also have no state emergency-response team or veterinary disaster-response team, and we’re 72 hours minimum from Outside assistance.”
Colbath said that utilizing plans established elsewhere may help in the development of a plan here.
“We’ve chosen four states with very comprehensive plans for pets,” he said. “These include Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and Michigan, which we chose since the Upper Peninsula of Michigan has very similar climactic conditions to us.”
Cora Chambers, an animal control officer with the Kenai Animal Shelter, said that assessing existing plans will allow committee members to pull from each to put together a plan that best works for the Kenai Peninsula. She knows firsthand that the Kenai shelter couldn’t accommodate all the animals in the city should a disaster strike.
“We can hold a maximum of 37 dogs and 21 cats, so our little building can only do so much,” she said. “Every area is going to have to identify a place to put pets, such as the fairgrounds, or possibly schools, or portables at schools, and it can’t just be one place in case one of the main roads goes out.”
The committee continues to meet monthly to develop a plan, which is to be completed by a Federal Emergency Management Agency deadline of 2014. Chambers said that pet owners can and should begin making their own home emergency response plan.
This typically includes a kit with enough pet supplies to last at least three days, including a collar with identification tags for each pet; a leash; a kennel or stake-out cable or chain to contain the pet; food and water; bowls; any medication and veterinary records; and newspaper, trash bags and sandwich bags to clean up after pets.
Also, since local family, friends and veterinarians may be busy responding to the emergency, a list of out-of-state contacts could also be included in the pet’s paperwork.
“I think a lot of people don’t think about these kinds of things until they need them,” Chambers said.