A little hurricane preparedness can go a long way — all the way from Louisiana to New York.
When volunteers discovered two lost dogs after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, they found contact information for a New York relative of the owner through the dogs' microchip implants and evacuated the dogs from New Orleans to New York City.
The two dogs reached the relative before their owner arrived there.
In the wake of disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the Bay Area Disaster Animal Response Team provides relief for animals as well as community education.
Although based in Largo, Bay Area DART offers its services to areas outside Tampa Bay. Most recently, its president, Connie Brooks, and other volunteers traveled to Joplin, Mo., to care for animals in the aftermath of a deadly tornado that tore through that city in late May.
"We're assisting owners who have lost everything and are in temporary housing and can't keep their animals," said Brooks, who formerly served as director of SPCA Tampa Bay.
In Joplin, DART provided food and temporary housing for animals, helped with spaying and neutering and set up adoptions. There, DART reunited more than 500 pets with their owners and adopted out more than 700 dogs and cats, Brooks said.
After Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, an emergency response team formed in Pinellas County to train volunteers for animal relief after natural disasters. Bay Area DART evolved from this in 1996, Brooks said.
The team has more than 300 active members, all volunteers. They deal with disasters as large as Hurricane Katrina and as small as house fires, but Brooks said the organization's main focus is educating pet owners about how to properly prepare their pets for a disaster. It isn't enough, said Brooks, to follow the adage "that you put your dogs or cats in a bathroom with three days' worth of food and water," she said.
Tonight, Brooks will offer advice on disaster preparedness for pet owners in a special Pinellas County e-series event. Beginning at 7 p.m., a 15-minute online video will provide information through the county's website, which is pinellascounty.org, as well as through YouTube and Pinellas County Connection TV, said Pinellas County Emergency Management spokesman Tom Iovino.
"[Brooks] is going to talk about why it's so darned important to have a plan now," Iovino said.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, some people who were found dead had pets at their side, he said.
Brooks and Pinellas County Senior Animal Control Officer John Hohenstern offer the following hurricane preparedness tips for pet owners:
• Before a storm hits, put together a kit with a pet's medical records, medication, collar, leash, a current photo and enough food and water for two weeks.
• Make sure pets have a county-issued license tag on their collars. This serves as "instant proof" that the animal is current on its rabies vaccination, Hohenstern said.
• If your pet has an identifying microchip implant, make sure it includes contact information for a friend or relative outside the area affected by the storm.
• During the storm, keep pets in a crate or portable kennel, even if you don't plan to evacuate. "If your windows or roof go, at least you know where your pets are," Brooks said.
Disaster education and relief efforts are not only about helping animals, but the entire community, said Amy Edwards, Bay Area DART education and communication chairwoman. When people lose homes, belongings and pets in a disaster, reuniting them with their pets brings some sense of normal back into their lives, she said.
"For them to find their pet because we have found it in a field response is really the greatest feeling ever," she said. "It starts the healing process for them."
Brooks said while working with animals, she always keeps humans in mind as well.
"I have a motto that with every dog and cat that come into the shelter, there's a person attached," she said. "If we don't take care of people, we can't take care of animals."
Katie Park can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or firstname.lastname@example.org.