Friday, September 19, 2008

A Snowball's Chance

Over at Pet Connection, Gina is reporting on the animals abandoned by Texans who evacuated the Gulf coast and failed to make provisions for their animals.

This is no reprise of the injustices of Katrina. Snowball wasn't ripped from the arms of his screaming, vomiting child-owner in Galveston. It took an Act of Congress to prevent that travesty this time. But an Act of Congress has no power to force individuals to not be creeps.

What most "civilians" don't know about is the long history of attempts by members of the public safety and animal welfare communities to convince emergency managers that planning for pets in disasters is just good public policy.

I attended the first organizing meeting of the FEMA New England TF-1, in early 1993. The experience convinced me permanently that I could not trust FEMA, or any of the "types" who were attaching themselves to it -- my interest in becoming a handler for them evaporated when I saw the triage priorities that effectively classed an injured SAR dog with damaged equipment.

At that meeting, my friend Sue Webb -- SAR handler, animal control officer, vet tech, reserve police officer, and veteran of animal rescue post hurricane Andrew -- put the Massachusetts EMA Director into a corner. Literally. Out in the lobby. Sue is about 5'3" in her Vasques, a petite and soft-spoken Quaker lady, and that fat bombastic man was going nowhere until she was done with him.

He'd stated in a meeting session that the Commonwealth's disaster plan for animals was to tell everyone to leave them behind and run. My husband pointed out that roving packs of abandoned dogs were a safety hazard and all abandoned animals were a disease vector. No worries -- the post-disaster plan for animals was to shoot dogs on sight. Problem solved. (And authorities really did exactly this before and after Katrina. Caught on film.) Ah, but people would refuse to evacuate if it meant leaving their pets behind, creating more civilian casualties and endangering public safety personnel. No problem, we'll evacuate them all at gunpoint!

For a state with strict gun laws, Massachusetts in a hurricane was sure starting to sound like the Wild West (movie-style, not reality-style.)

The EMA Director was no match for Sue. She'd been there, done that in Homestead, and he heard every detail of how failing to plan for animals turned a natural disaster into a human-caused disaster. She used phrases like "dereliction of duty" and "criminal culpability."

It took her several years, but eventually Sue prevailed in Massachusetts. I believe the EMA Director did the good deed of finally retiring, or maybe dying. That's often the only way to accomplish the most urgent and butt-obvious reforms. Send the Old Guard to Sun City or Mount Auburn and get on with it.

But it took sixteen years and another major natural and human-caused disaster for our country to recognize -- in this little way -- that public health and public safety requires us to accommodate the way people actually behave, instead of imagining that we can force them to behave as disaster planners wish they would. Sixteen years and a little dog named Snowball lost with all the rest to acknowledge that it is a grievous injustice to do otherwise.

Because "we" knew in 1992 that planning for animals in disaster was a public safety obligation, not a woolly-headed luxury.

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