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Following Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast in late August of 2005, emergency personnel began to re-evaluate evacuation plans and shelters, specifically for household pets.
"After action reports were released from Katrina, approximately 64 people drowned because they wouldn't leave without their pets," Director of Emergency Management for Cape May County, New Jersey, Marty Pagliughi said. "Almost 100,000 animals died."
For years, hurricane shelters have been exclusive to humans, inhibiting the admission of household pets for various reasons, such as zoning laws and allergies, until recently.
In the wake of multiple winter blizzards that paralyzed Cape May County in 2010, officials realized that the absence of pet-friendly shelters was putting their residents in potentially life-threatening situations and as a result, the county developed an innovative solution.
After receiving nearly $20,000 in donations, the county's public works employees constructed two portable, self-sustaining tractor trailers, which were unveiled in June 2012. The first of their kind, at 52 feet each, the trailers can each house nearly 120 animals.
Fully equipped with heat, air conditioning, running water and food supplies, these animal shelters provide peace-of-mind to residents, who can be reassured that their pets are safe from harm during an emergency situation.
"The trailers are stationed at various shelters with the largest in Avalon," Pagliughi said. "They are available to anyone that needs them."
Instead of transporting the animals, these trailers are placed at designated evacuation shelters and pet owners put their pets inside one of the trailer's 70 cages.
During the emergency, pet owners are then able to care for and comfort their own animals with the assistance of shelter operators.
"We know that this is an integral part of our public safety," Pagluighi said.
Outside of the New Jersey beachside county, multiple pet-friendly evacuation shelters are popping up across the United States.
"While Hurricane Katrina was a turning point for the care of animals post- and pre-disaster, we are seeing more robust plans coming into play for incorporating pets," Senior Manager for the Disaster Response Program with the Humane Society Wanda Merling said.
During the Colorado floods of September 2013, emergency response teams successfully rescued animals with their owners and evacuation shelters accepted pets and people, which were concepts unseen in years prior, according to Merling.
Although strides have been made in the right direction, communities are still urged to develop relationships with whichever organizations provide the local evacuation shelters, such as the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army. Through these relationships, the public can work to come up with a plan and enact an emergency shelter for animals in close proximity to their town.
"Pets are really a part of the family so people don't want to leave them behind and they don't want to evacuate without their pets," Merling said. "So, it's important to have a plan and know where to go during an emergency if you do have an animal."
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