Gulf Coast preps for pet shelters during hurricane

Published 4:55 pm Friday, May 23, 2008

Officials making hurricane preparations along the Gulf Coast say they are trying to make sure pets and other animals have shelter during a storm.

Officials at the Alabama/Mississippi hurricane conference said they had organized networks of shelters and veterinarians, and that they are more prepared than when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. The disaster taught them to expect thousands of storm evacuees with pets — everything from gerbils to potbellied pigs — they refused to abandon. Many evacuees then had no idea where to shelter their pets.

In Alabama, officials were working on creating a network that includes a “disaster veterinarian” in each of the state’s 67 counties. Mississippi has planned to handle about 1,200 evacuated animals of all sizes and can open agriculture centers with large barns to shelter horses and cattle. Louisiana is testing refrigerated trucks to haul animals.

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Hurricane Katrina, which devastated Louisiana, Mississippi and parts of Alabama, killed countless animals and brought new state and federal laws to protect them during a storm, said Dr. Brigid Elchos, Mississippi’s public health veterinarian.

“We’re much farther along in prepared efforts to care for people with animals — in a better place than we were during Katrina,” she said by phone.

At the conference in Mobile, veterinarian Brad Fields said there will be major shelters open in Dothan, Montgomery and Birmingham.

Kay Carter-Corker, an animal care expert with the USDA in Raleigh, N.C., told the conference that refrigerated trucks will be tested next month in Baton Rouge, La., for potential use as animal transports during a disaster.

Hurricane season begins June 1 and runs through November.

During Katrina, officials were overwhelmed with many different pets and animals arriving from stricken areas— and tons of donated pet supplies that arrived by the truckload in Hattiesburg, Miss., and elsewhere.

In Jackson, Miss., about 300 animals arrived with storm victims who evacuated from New Orleans and the coast, Elchos recalled. A temporary shelter in Hattiesburg held 2,000 rescued animals. “Either owners left them or they were strays,” Elchos said.

Ronnie White, an emergency planner for the Mississippi Board of Animal Health, said some 300 people have signed up to help with animals during the next hurricane. He encouraged communities to enlist small groups of volunteers who can be counted on to help care for the storm-stranded animals.

Among the volunteers is Aileene Maldonado of the Mississippi Animal Rescue League. She said her group’s 45-acre facility in Jackson assisted during Katrina and could house 150 animals.

“If there were another hurricane, once we are full, the animals go to the fairgrounds,” she said. “We shelter the cats, who make too much noise at the fairgrounds.”

White said the latest evacuation plans include transportation for pets owned by people needing assistance in fleeing the Mississippi coast. But owners must provide identification for the animal before it’s picked up. Evacuees will be bused with their pets in a separate vehicle to Jackson or Meridian, he said.

The shelter in Meridian can hold about 100 cats and dogs while the Jackson Coliseum Fairgrounds can take several hundred.

White said the “real thrill” comes later in reuniting a pet with its owner.