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State Launches Organization to Deal With Disasters Affecting Animals

by Suzanne Bush

In September 1999, at the height of a very busy hurricane season, storm-weary residents along the East Coast prepared for a massive evacuation. Hurricane Floyd was moving steadily toward Florida, after wreaking havoc in the Bahamas. Floyd's size and potential for causing a major disaster led to what was then the largest peacetime evacuation in the history of the United States. Two million people, from central Florida to North Carolina, left their homes in anticipation of Floyd's arrival. The National Weather Service issued a hurricane warning for nearly the entire East Coast, stretching from Miami to Plymouth, MA.

Floyd made landfall at Cape Fear, NC, at 6:30 a.m. on September 16. The storm was considerably weaker than forecasters had predicted, but still enormously destructive. One-day rainfall records were shattered in Wilmington, NC and in Philadelphia, PA. In the end, Hurricane Floyd caused over $1.3 billion in damage and left 57 people dead.

In North Carolina, Floyd also caused something else: the creation of an organization called State Animal Response Team (SART). Because, along with the damage to homes and businesses in North Carolina, and the deaths of 51 people, more than 3 million domestic and farm animals—among them 250 horses—drowned during Hurricane Floyd.

No Plan for Animals

The evacuations that probably saved thousands of peoples' lives were not accompanied by any coordinated plan to ensure the safety of animals. At the time, nobody imagined the impact a storm like Hurricane Floyd might have on animals.

That was then.

Since 1999, the notion that humans need not surrender to such extraordinary forces of nature, and to the consequent loss of so many horses and domestic animals, has gained traction among agencies that respond to emergencies. They've recognized the public health considerations, economic considerations and humane considerations, and developed workable solutions. North Carolina's SART program, a pioneering effort designed to ensure that animals would never be left behind again, took advantage of several emerging opportunities that provided funding and organizational help.

Bio-terrorism, once the stuff of science fiction, is now part of the planning regimen of our government at virtually every level, from the most remote borough in Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C. Simulations meant to bring the real impact of bio-terrorism into focus offer terrifying visions of how quickly disease could overwhelm our nation's capacity to respond to disasters. The simulations also demonstrate the complexity involved in developing effective responses. That's why the Department of Homeland Security is providing funding for programs that seek to create solutions.

It's clear that any solution must reach deeply and broadly into thousands of communities. North Carolina's SART program, with its grassroots organization and partnersips with numerous stakeholder communities, has become a template that other states are using to develop their own plans.

Just Introduced

In Pennsylvania, SART and its companion CART (County Animal Response Teams) is just now coming together, but they will eventually coordinate plans for statewide preparedness in the event of local emergencies or large-scale disasters that involve animals. SART's stated mission in Pennsylvania is to provide prevention, response and recovery for emergencies affecting animals. It is a public-private partnership and volunteer effort. It too receives funding through the Department of Homeland Security. There is one full-time employee, Dr. Joel Hersh, who was recently named Executive Director of SART. Hersh retired from the State Health Department, where he was the Director of Epidemiology.

"The first step is to develop a business plan about how we're going to roll it out across the state," Hersh said. "There are lots of pieces, but how does it all fit together?"

Hersh and the others who are moving this concept forward acknowledge the enormous challenges that lie ahead. Those challenges include recruiting coordinators in each of the state's counties, and identifying resources and specialists that can be called upon in the event of an emergency.

Volunteer Training

Volunteers across the state will need basic training in incident command and hazmat awareness, and advanced training in human and animal CPR, search and rescue and large animal rescue. There are other considerations, too. How would teams handle evacuation of large groups of horses in the event of a flood or major fire, or sheltering those animals once they're evacuated? Who would provide the specialized care large animals need?

According to Dr. Nan Hanshaw-Roberts, the Chair of SART's Executive Committee, the critical elements of training volunteers will be handled through several avenues. "We have coordinators in a number of counties, and we're finalizing the county organization template. The basic training for volunteers is incident command, and that can be taken online." She said that there will also be other venues for training and for orientation to the SART and CART organizing principles at meetings sponsored by the Department of Agriculture.

Positive Response

Hersh has made numerous presentations throughout the state, and has corresponded with the Emergency Management Directors of all 67 counties in Pennsylvania. He says the response has been all positive. "We have probably about a dozen counties in one stage of development or another. Some have coordinators already, and others are just getting organized," he said. "Every day the number changes."

While the challenges of pulling disparate groups with a myriad of expertise and resources might seem daunting to some people, Hersh is energized by it. "I've built statewide programs before, and I'm taking my skills and applying them to a different topic." He said he's hoping to accomplish a lot in a short time. Looking ahead six or seven months, he's anticipating several changes. "I would hope that we'll have a structure built at a statewide level that could provide uniform and consistent guidance to county coordinators. And a database that will allow each county to add their resources," so it will be possible to see who is trained in what, and what resources are available in the event of an emergency. "For example, if someone in the Southeastern part of the state needed a lot of temporary corrals, they could see whether neighboring counties have them." Also, if a lot of horses or cattle needed to be moved, the database would show coordinators where they could get trailers, and where they could house the livestock temporarily.

Hersh is also hoping to get some of the state's county plans up and running soon. "I'd like to see the initial counties with finalized plans with volunteers partially trained, so that they are real—as opposed to virtual—resources."

He's looking forward to getting the website operational soon, and to developing permanent funding sources for the program. "I'd like to see a line item in somebody's budget that would fund SART to the tune of $300,000 or $400,000 per year," he said. That money would allow SART to purchase equipment and support county organizations more effectively.

People who are interested in finding out more about SART can call 1-888-550-7862, or e-mail pasart@pavma.org.

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