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July 11, 2007

Community and HSUS Face Flooding Together

There were countless animal lives lost when Katrina and then Rita struck along an enormous swath of the Gulf Coast. There was also a remarkably generous private response to the hurricanes, and an outpouring of public concern for the victims of the disaster, including the animals.

Shaggy dog in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina
© AP/Bill Haber
A dog wanders through debris from Hurricane Katrina around
the
Superdome in New Orleans.

Now nearly two years later, there is a new federal law that establishes policies for pets in disasters where none had existed before. And 15 states have passed new laws to provide for pets in disasters—in a surge of lawmaking that recognizes the needs of animals and the emotional connections between pets and their guardians.

The HSUS, too, has amped up its disaster response capacity since the Gulf Coast tragedy. And while the nation has been spared from any major cataclysms in the last two years on the scale of Katrina, there has been a spate of fires, floods and other natural disasters that turn local communities inside out. New policies of governments help but there is no substitute for personal preparedness and rapid response in the field.

By late June, the mid-section of the country had been deluged with day after day of rain, and a disaster situation was brewing. The HSUS readied its response team, and specifically focused on the hardest hit areas of Kansas.

Dog cared for by HSUS after flooding in Coffeyville, Kansas
© The HSUS/Covey
Charlie is cared for by HSUS responders in Coffeyville. Dwayne
Wilson, at left, was reunited with Charlie after three days.

On June 30, torrential rains had flooded the tight-knit community of Coffeyville, Kan., and just a few days later, 2,000 people had been evacuated from their homes. The city invited The HSUS Disaster Response Team to help shelter animals affected by the disaster, and our professionals swung into action and set up an emergency shelter.

Nearly 200 animals have been cared for at this temporary facility, including dogs, cats, a boa constrictor, fish, hamsters and chickens. Currently, 104 animals reside there.

I asked Kathy Covey, one of our responders and a public information officer for The HSUS, to offer some personal reflections:

Our heavy equipment arrived and we set up an emergency shelter on Independence Day. Millions of Americans could watch the Coffeyville flood on their televisions. Being there, though, brings emotions bubbling to the surface.

On one hand, residents attempted to hang on to normalcy—so the 4th of July fireworks went off as scheduled. In the new shelter, though, that only made things worse. Bewildered, frightened and lonely, the lost animals of Coffeyville had little to celebrate. They had been separated from their families only to be assaulted by the booms of pyrotechnics.

We moved the animals in our care away from the fireworks to another part of town. And before long, things began to improve.

Exhausted dogs lapsed into sleep. Kittens tumbled over each other in their crates. And the citizens of Coffeyville, with so many troubles in their minds, found the heart for the community’s animals. An older gentleman with an inviting smile was overwhelmed to learn that our team had come from across the country, from Maryland, from Florida and from Iowa, to help.

Kitten cared for by HSUS after flooding in Coffeyville, Kansas
©  The HSUS/Covey
After the flooding in Coffeyville separated
them, Boots is reunited with his family.

Local residents joined in the work. Judy drove from Dearing, about 20 miles away, to volunteer to walk the dogs and clean cages. Jim—who used vacation days to stick with the animals in need—created a website and posted vital information every day, mobilizing his informal “critter posse” to help at the emergency shelter. Lisa came after work with her daughters to comfort cats, play with the kittens and clean up after dogs. Connie took charge of organizing the paperwork necessary to keep the shelter running.

If nature dealt Coffeyville a hard blow, the people of Kansas rose to show their strengths.

As every shelter volunteer in America can imagine, the best part came as the community began to stabilize: The reunions of people and pets. People approach the shelter with expressions of hope mixed with trepidation on their faces. Then they enter. They look. Yes. There is the dog. Or the cat. Instead of floodwaters, now tears of joy flowed.

The lesson of this, and the other disasters, is that people must plan for the worst—for themselves and their companion animals. The story of America can be told in its disasters. In instances when that doesn’t suffice, we’ll be there to help as we can.

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