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Patricia Withrow would stand her ground, come hell or high water. On September 21, 1989, hell and high water came. It left the low country looking like a landfill. The 14-year-old and her family stayed as Hurricane Hugo bore down on their Berkeley County farm in South Carolina. They would not leave. They could not leave. Their horses were family.
“We were not leaving them behind,” said Withrow, remembering 23 years ago when Hugo bludgeoned South Carolina with winds gusting to 160 miles per hour, killing 35 and causing $6 billion in damages. When the wind went silent the next morning, the world was a wreck, but the horses had weathered the storm. “We all survived.”
The 2012 hurricane season, which runs from June through November, has hardly begun and South Carolina already has faced two named tropical storms. Many worry if this will be the year the state gets clobbered. Hugo was the last devastating bruiser. People can evacuate, but animals must depend on their owners. South Carolina has emergency responders and resources to help people and their pets. It comes down to this: owners are responsible.
State emergency response officials figure that 60 to 70 percent of households own at least one pet. What’s more, the state is home to approximately 90,000 horses spread across all 46 counties.
Many animal owners are unwilling to leave their animals to fend for themselves in a natural disaster. The private decision to remain and ride out the storm has public consequences, affecting disaster response and recovery efforts and costs.
After Hurricane Katrina President George Bush signed the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act. Known as the PETS Act, the law requires states that may seek Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance to accommodate pets and service animals in their plans for citizens in disasters; however this may only be requested after the event has been declared a presidential emergency.
Experts say response resources could run up enormous costs very quickly. In 2008 when the Mississippi River flooded Iowa, officials estimate that pet emergency expenses came close to $3 million for shelters and services in just over two months.
PETS has been called an unfunded mandate. Counties and states have not been given funding for planning. PETS comes at a time when governments struggle with budget and staff cuts. Money goes for today’s must-dos, not tomorrow’s might-happens.
Patricia Withrow is now a risk manager and emergency planner for Berkeley County. She works with Tom Smith, director of emergency management there. His office is responsible for response and recovery, including evacuations.
“Human life and safety are the primary concern,” Smith said. “We have limited assets to help us in our planning for animals, but we do as best we can. After a storm there’s no guarantee there will be enough motels that will take pets. Search and rescue for lost and injured animals puts a strain on our resources. We only have one animal control officer.”
What is a household pet? For reimbursement purposes, FEMA’s definition is: “a domesticated animal, such as a dog, cat, bird, rabbit, rodent or turtle that is traditionally kept in the home for pleasure– rather than for commercial purposes– can travel in commercial carriers, and can be housed in temporary facilities.”
But in Berkeley County, as in hundreds of counties nationwide, horses, goats, sheep, llamas, chickens, even pigs and backyard cattle may be considered pets by their evacuating citizens.
“We’ve got one fellow with Texas Longhorns, and there’s someone else who has buffaloes,” Withrow said. “What do we do with them?”
Her boss, Tom Smith, is part of the problem.
“My daughter has a horse,” Smith said. “And we don’t have a trailer.”
Smith is not alone.
“A lot of people keep their horses at riding stables,” Withrow said. “When they take their horses to shows or competitions, they hitch a ride in the stable trailer.”
“If we had enough trailers – and we don’t – that’s only one concern,” Smith said. “We’ll have thousands of people on I-26 heading west. There will be traffic jams, and those horses are going to be stuck out there in the heat and fumes. Trucks and trailers may break down and will have to be moved off the road, along with the treatment and transport needed for injured people and horses. It will be a mess.”
May 3, Smith spoke out about these concerns and others during a tabletop exercise for hurricane planning at the S.C. Emergency Management Division (SCEMD) headquarters in West Columbia. Emergency preparedness planners and responders were going through their annual dry run before the beginning of hurricane season.
Recent natural disasters in several other states have impressed state emergency planners and politicians. Governors realized that states would need to be better prepared. S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley has been “proactive” on emergency planning, according to disaster response officials. The governor organized and held a second hurricane discussion on May 23 so many of the state agencies could review potential actions.
Responding to disasters is part of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Tasks are assigned to units called Emergency Support Functions (ESFs) that work out of an Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Since all disasters start and end locally, the goal is to respond from the grassroots up. State ESF resources are brought in when local ones are overwhelmed.
ESFs are like tools of a disaster-designed Swiss Army knife. The units support response issues: transportation, communications, public works and engineering, firefighting, mass sheltering, health and medical services, search and rescue, hazardous materials, food services, energy, law enforcement, public information, emergency traffic management, animal/agriculture, donated goods, military support and business and industry.
Both a governor’s declaration of emergency and a presidential declaration may be needed to activate all the resources necessary to manage an event. All state agencies and organizations coordinate with federal agencies as needed. Aside from response coordination, the S.C. Emergency Management Division (SCEMD) also oversees data and financial recordkeeping, both critical to the state’s recovery process.
ESF-17 is Animal/Agriculture Emergency Response– led by Charlotte Krugler, a veterinarian with Clemson University Livestock-Poultry Health– the state regulatory agency that protects the food animal supply. While Clemson is the ESF administrator several other agencies and organizations provide the “heavy lifting” in response. Actually, according to Krugler, most of the people in ESF-17 are volunteers.
Along with providing for possible issues related to dogs, cats and horses, ESF-17 deals with issues affecting production animals, crops and horticulture and agricultural chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides). A major disaster could affect the food supply and the state’s multi-billion dollar agriculture industry. Animal agriculture represents over $6 billion and 37,253 jobs in the overall S.C. economy with $1.24 billion and 11,782 jobs as direct economic impacts.
Planning for all the possibilities involves a deluge of details, ranging from capturing animals to disposing of carcasses, from inspecting chemical warehouses to inspecting damaged food production facilities. The ESF 17 plan, which is updated regularly, is a handbook of potential miseries and how to handle them. Even during emergencies, Krugler said animal owners are still responsible for the health and safety of their animals.
“But when circumstances out of their control occur, ESF-17 agencies and organizations will, if requested, seek resources to help.” Krugler said.
Resources include lists of pet-friendly lodgings, stables and boarding facilities and known emergency shelter sites.
“There’s a need in many counties for shelter supplies,” Krugler said.
Supplies could include large metal collapsible cages, bowls and administrative supplies to take in animals until they can be reunited with their owners.
Krugler also makes a pitch for trained volunteers, but spells out conditions.
“It is very important that people do not just show up or ‘self-deploy’ when a disaster hits,” Krugler said.
Krugler recommends people contact county emergency offices in “peace time” before a storm arrives so that they can be trained to help.