Thursday, October 21, 2010

5 counties join pet evacuation disaster drill

Yuxing Zheng, The Oregonian
CANBY -- Animal noises pierced the chilly morning air inside the livestock barn of the Clackamas County Fairgrounds on Wednesday.

But instead of the usual oinks and moos, shrill howls from 20 or so dogs filled the cavernous room. The 25 or so "cats" sat silent, seeing as how they were actually plush toys.

The assembly of pets live and fake allowed animal service officials from Clackamas, Columbia, Multnomah, Washington and Clark counties to stage a mock evacuation and sheltering exercise for pets. The training exercise helped emergency preparedness officials test their procedures for the mass sheltering of pets after a major disaster.

"With Hurricane Katrina and various other disasters, we have seen that people love their pets and they're part of the family," said Diana Hallmark, manager of Clackamas County Dog Services, which coordinated the exercise. "Emergency pet sheltering is that extra piece that allows people the peace of mind to be able to evacuate in a safe manner when they're first asked."

Wednesday's exercise simulated a post-earthquake evacuation of residents and their pets. Red Cross volunteers ran a human evacuation shelter in the fairgrounds' pavilion hall a short distance away.

First, community volunteers brought their dogs as well as stuffed toy bunnies, turtles and other toy cats to the pet shelter. Organizers feared real cats might have proved too "temperamental" for training purposes, said Tim Heider, a Clackamas County spokesman.

Officials then took pictures of each pet with its owner, with one photo going on top of each kennel. The owners and pets were each tagged with matching wristbands or collars with ID numbers: red tags for female pets and blue ones for males. The pets were then led to one of the individual kennels spaced in a grid pattern throughout the room.

Pets designated as having wounds or injuries were directed to a triage center. The most seriously "injured" pets, such as a stuffed horse, were sent to Multnomah County's mobile vet unit behind the building.

The training follows completion of a regional planning effort for the mass evacuation and sheltering of pets in the event of a large-scale disaster. Congress and Oregon passed laws calling for such plans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The practice session and the proximity of the pet and human shelters helped Clackamas resident John Gill feel more confident about potentially leaving his home in an emergency.

Under normal evacuation circumstances, "I'm not convinced I would give up my dog to a shelter," said Gill, whose 3-year-old poodle, Henry, participated in the exercise. "But I feel confident in this situation, where I can see him and I can talk to him."

At the end of the exercise, organizers noted several areas needing improvement, such as spreading out the reunification of owners and pets, putting more distance between the cats and barking dogs, and bringing in propane heaters.

The exercise also helped pet owners note their own weak spots.

Tualatin resident Noralyn Danielle said she learned she needed to complete emergency preparation work for her two Siamese cats, which had remained at home during the exercise.

"I didn't have their vaccination numbers. I couldn't remember the vet's name," Danielle said. "It's a wake-up call for us, especially if they need medication. It's all those things I would've never thought of."

Organizers of the exercise emphasized that owners should keep a three-day supply of food, water and medicine for their pets in case of a disaster.

Sandy resident Sarah Richardson said the exercise taught her to talk with relatives to ensure they could retrieve her three dogs from a shelter should anything happen to her during an evacuation.

"If I've lost everything in a disaster, if you reunite with your family and on top of that your pet -- that would be the ultimate comfort," Richardson said.