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NC Pet Shelters Prepare To Save Animals During Storms

Residents of an apartment complex in Fayetteville, look at a flooded car in a parking lot on Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2018.
Ben McKeown

Christy Saunders swung open the door of an enclosed trailer revealing folded animal crates, food bowls, leashes, pooper scoopers and massive rolls of plastic sheeting.

The trailer holds all the equipment necessary for temporary pet lodging during a hurricane evacuation, said Saunders, emergency management coordinator for Pasquotank and Camden counties. People and pets can get shelter next to each other.

Volunteers unpack it, wrap a climate-controlled room or hallway in the plastic, lay down a rubber mat in the center and assemble the cages along the sides.

"It's done like this so that it is easy to clean up," she said. "It's a good plan."

Emergency officials deployed dozens of the portable pet shelters during Hurricane Florence last year. Hundreds of animals were temporarily housed, more than during any other storm ever in the state, said Wendy Pulley, interim human services branch manager of the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management.

"No doubt, people appreciated not having to leave their pet behind," she said. "North Carolina has become the gold standard for pet shelters."

After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, hundreds of animals were left behind. One report of a boy who was not allowed to bring his dog, Snowball, to the shelter became a rallying point for animal activists. Congress passed a law the next year requiring states have evacuation plans for animals. In North Carolina, every county must have a plan.

"Hurricane Katrina showed the world what happens when people refuse to leave their four-legged family members behind during natural disasters — and what happens when people abandon their animals to fend for themselves," PETA Senior Vice President Daphna Nachminovitch said in an email.

After hurricanes Maria, Harvey and Florence, PETA's first responders still found animals stranded in floods, animal shelters overwhelmed with lost and abandoned pets and veterinary clinics overrun with injuries, she said. She did not specify in which states or counties the distressed animals were found.

Since Katrina, about half the 100 counties in North Carolina have used grants and local money to buy pet equipment trailers, Pulley said. Not every county needs them. Coastal counties like Dare and Currituck have vehicles for transporting pets to inland shelters that have animal facilities.

"It makes people more willing to evacuate, and we can save more lives," Pulley said.

The equipment-only trailers cost $16,000, she said. A climate-controlled, self-contained trailer where pets can live inside costs $35,000.

Most people leave and take their pets with them, Saunders said. Typically only 2 percent of the population goes to a shelter during an evacuation. When Florence was coming, one elderly woman with a pet needed help. Saunders was trying to find her a place when a neighbor offered to take her to safety.

"We're going to do everything we can to help somebody," she said. "It might be on a case by case basis."

Volunteers have to get training. It takes about two hours to set up a trailer and about three or four to take down depending on the number of animals. They have to register owners and pets into the shelter. Each pet gets an ID attached to their collar or crate. The owner gets a matching wristband or something similar. Pets should be current on vaccinations. If they are not, a veterinarian at the shelter will examine them.

Staff have to deal with frantic or unruly pets and owners at times. Afterward, the room and the crates have to be cleaned and sanitized.

Volunteers can be hard to get during local flooding events, Saunders said.

"I understand why people would not want to do it." she said. "It's a tough job."

The state calls on animal rescue groups for help in a major event like Florence, Pulley said. That storm was unique in that threatened the entire state at first, she said.

"We've never had so many evacuations," she said. "At the end of the day, we saved people and animals."

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