Published on 04/10/08

UGA workshop helps counties handle animals during disasters

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

After Hurricane Katrina, Don Hamilton and other University of Georgia employees took care of 3,000 abandoned animals for 10 days at a shelter in Mississippi. The experience sparked them to develop a workshop to help keep Georgia animals and citizens safer during disasters.

They’re now taking the “Handling Animals during Disasters” planning workshop to counties around Georgia.

“If you don’t have a place to shelter animals in disaster, people aren’t going to evacuate,” said Hamilton, homeland security coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Georgia requires that each of its 159 counties have a local emergency operations plan. This plan contains a section on agriculture and natural resources, which includes handling companion animals. This is also required through the national Pet Evacuation Transportation Standards Act.

“After evacuation and disaster, there’s a tremendous problem with abandoned animals – dogs, cats, birds and livestock,” said Jeff Doles, director of Peach County’s Emergency Management Agency. “Before you can re-inhabit an area or allow citizens to return, you have to control the animal population. Now the encouragement is to take your animals with you so they don’t have to take care of themselves.”

Through the workshop, UGA experts helped Peach County research and develop its plan and guided various county players through mock disaster situations.

“They did a lot of groundwork where the rubber hits the road,” Doles said. “I can’t tell you how much help they were to us. We’re a small county. It would be virtually impossible for us to accomplish a plan of the magnitude we’ve got using our local resources.”

In February, Dole, UGA Cooperative Extension coordinator Frank Funderburk and others from the Fort Valley area tested their on-paper plan for handling animals in a disaster situation.

The two mock disasters “taught us to adapt,” said Doles, who is also the county’s fire chief. “We had some problems that we identified in our exercises, but we had a lot of strengths. I think it’s some of best training done in a while.”

The Georgia Department of Agriculture was a key player in the effort. UGA’s Fanning Institute helped facilitate it.

The county’s board of commissioners has since added the animal plan to the local emergency plan, which the city and county use to respond to and recover from any manmade or natural disaster.

As part of the plan, Doles is the first person county officials will call if there is a disaster. The third person on that list is Funderburk, who keeps a copy of the plan close by, ready to grab in case a tornado hits a veterinarian’s office or a hurricane sends evacuees up I-75, pets in hand, looking for shelter.

“I hope we don’t ever have to use it, but at least we’ve got a plan,” he said.

Hamilton is now helping emergency management officials in Brooks and Houston counties develop their own plans. These counties were chosen because of their proximity to Georgia’s interstates, their willingness to participate and their local resources.

The workshops are funded by a Department of Homeland Security grant through the Georgia Emergency Management Agency on behalf of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.