Plan for the worst, hope for the best: Getting a jump on disasters


Best Friends is not a disaster response organization, but over the years we have responded to a variety of natural disasters that have intersected with our mission operations and programs, and one thing is clear: The animal component of disasters can be largely solved long before a disaster happens with some common-sense planning by us humans.

Recently, an email from the Mississippi Animal Response Team (MART) in Jackson, Mississippi, arrived in my inbox with a reminder about the start of hurricane season (June 1) and the need for an evacuation plan for people and pets. Organized through the Mississippi Board of Animal Health, MART coordinates disaster response for animals across the state at a county and municipal level. Mississippi is frequently hit by storms and residents know the value of thoughtful preparedness. This was in the email:

Is your family ready? Take a “blue sky day” to do the following:

  1. Build an evacuation kit for your family, including your pets.
  2. Make an evacuation plan for your family, including your pets.

“Blue sky days” are, of course, those uneventful, crisis-free days preceding and following any type of emergency when we actually have the time and frame of mind with which to plan and prepare, but rarely do. After all, what are the chances that you’ll ever experience a natural disaster that will require you to quickly evacuate your home?

I think it’s a good thing that, in general, we’re not all fear-driven pessimists prone to planning for doomsday events in our free time, and that we’d prefer to just enjoy the sunshine and a nice walk with our dogs instead. However, it’s a smart move to do some basic planning for even the unlikely emergency that might require you and your family (including the furry and feathered members) to quickly leave your home or to quickly locate your pet if you are separated by events beyond your control.

It’s not just about hurricanes

Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Best Friends has directly helped nearly 13,000 animals affected by major disasters, most of those being animals displaced by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey. But while these two hurricanes are certainly the most profound emergency response situations that Best Friends has addressed as an organization, hurricanes aren’t the only kind of natural disaster we need to plan for.

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, 2017 was a historic year for weather and climate disasters in the U.S. Those disasters included 16 individual billion-dollar disaster events, such as flooding, tornadoes, wildfires and hurricanes.

In December 2017 and January 2018, the Thomas Fire in Southern California burned 281,893 acres, destroyed 1,063 structures and caused the evacuation of more than 100,000 people. It was the largest wildfire in California’s history.

During the Thomas Fire, Ventura County Animal Services, a Best Friends Network partner, assisted over 2,000 animals. Bryan Bray, the field operations supervisor who coordinated emergency efforts during the fire, described it as an “eye-opening” experience when it came to evacuating, sheltering and managing such a large number of animals. That’s exactly how we still think about our operation at NRG Arena in Houston last fall: eye-opening.

And then there’s the volcano: A little over a month ago, Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, erupted on the Big Island of Hawaii following a magnitude 5.0 earthquake. According to various media sources, since the eruption on May 3, approximately 2,500 people have been evacuated, forced to grab just the essentials and their pets, and head for safer ground and clearer skies. Currently, there is no estimate on when the area will be safe again or when they’ll be able to return home.

Don’t Forget Pet IDs

It’s usually the case that simple is better and while ID tags on collars and microchips may seem to be no-brainers, responders are always amazed by the number of animals coming into emergency shelters with no identification of any kind. This one simple step could make the difference between a disaster-displaced pet being quickly reunited with his family and perhaps never making it home again.

My wife, Silva, and I were working in Los Angeles when the 1994 Northridge earthquake hit. We pulled our volunteers together to create a lost-and-found pet hotline and one of the most common situations that we encountered was lack of physical identification on the lost dog or cat. Many of the homes in the hardest-hit areas had backyards that were enclosed by unreinforced block walls. It was common practice for folks to allow their pets access to their backyard via pet doors and since the animal was never outside the confines of the house or yard, many people felt that they didn’t need ID tags on their pets. (Microchips were new technology at that time.)

The inflexible block walls that kept pets safely enclosed on “blue sky days” were shaken, fractured and crumbling at 4:30 a.m. when the quake struck, setting terrified animals loose and running with no identification. With every aftershock, they ran farther from home or deeper under cover. Dogs ran for miles, into other jurisdictions and across animal shelter service area boundaries. Panicked cats went to ground in damaged and abandoned buildings. In both cases, the lack of identification made family reunions a real challenge, especially since affected families had to leave their damaged homes.

Likewise, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it was the lack of pet identification tags or implanted microchips that made trying to facilitate family reunions such a heartbreaking endeavor. This was compounded by the fact that so many families were evacuated and forced to leave everything behind, including pet photos that might have helped to connect them with their displaced pets.

And of course, last year, in response to the unprecedented flooding and damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast, Best Friends established an emergency shelter for displaced dogs and cats, first in Montgomery County and then, as the water began to recede, at NRG Arena in Houston. About 1,600 animals came through our operation, and you could count the number of dogs and cats with any kind of identification on one hand!

Know your community and plan thoughtfully

Different states and regions of the country are prone to different types of natural disasters. California residents are acutely aware of wildfire season. Residents along the Gulf Coast are familiar with the phrase “hurricane season.” It means that local animal welfare organizations are well-positioned to get relevant, community-specific information out quickly.

Sure, if you live in Montana, it’s a safe bet you won’t be fleeing your home anytime soon due to a volcanic eruption. And here in Utah, I know the chances of experiencing a devastating hurricane are few and far between (OK, they’re nonexistent). But planning for the unexpected, whether it’s a natural disaster common to your neck of the woods or a simple house fire, for ourselves and for our pets, makes sense and can save lives.

So, here are six plan-ahead steps that make a big difference:

  • Make sure your pets are microchipped and have ID on their collars with current contact information (including the phone number of a friend or relative outside the immediate area, for when local cell phone towers are down). Have your pets’ medical records and clear photos of your pets accessible online or on your phone.
  • Have multiple emergency routes and destinations planned ahead of time (contact information for friends or family out of the area, pet-friendly hotels, etc.). It’s particularly important to plan ahead for large animals.
  • Utilize local communication: Get on email lists for local shelters and vet’s offices. Download emergency apps on your phone.
  • Have a “go bag” ready for your specific animals. Be smart about what you might need. For example, choose short, sturdy standard leashes or chain leashes for safe, close-quarters handling, instead of retractable and longer flimsy leashes. If your dog is fearful, get him trained to wear a muzzle and include a muzzle in your go bag. Keep leashes and carriers and other go bag items by doors or in cars, not stored away.
  • Pet food and emergency water can be kept in your go bag for a small dog or cat. For larger dogs, it’s a good idea to keep a fresh, one-day supply of food and a couple of gallons of water in the trunk of your car. The more self-sufficient you are for the first day following any disaster or disruption of routine services, the better.
  • Be familiar with emergency response and support teams for your specific community. Get on local websites like and make sure you have the corresponding apps on your phone. Consider keeping a hard-copy list of neighbors’ contact information.

Finally, has some great disaster preparedness information that’s specific to disaster type.

Together, we will Save Them All, but the fewer we have to save, the better — so please be prepared!

Francis Battista