AUGUSTA – Maine Emergency Management officials are studying how to implement a new federal law that requires states to help evacuate pets during a natural disaster like a hurricane or ice storm, or risk losing federal money.
“We’ve been moving in this direction for the last several years,” said Charles Jacobs, acting director of MEMA. “We have around a half dozen pet-friendly shelters in Maine now, and we have also been working with the Department of Agriculture not only on pet related issues, but on large animals, farm animal issues.”
He said Maine emergency management officials learned in the ice storm of 1998 that some people will not abandon their pets or farm animals, even when their own lives are in danger. He said there are concerns in his agency about the federal law, because there are no rules or guidelines for its implementation.
“We may be meeting what they want already. We just don’t know what they want in the plans,” he said. “There appears to be language that will allow us to use planning funds, but there does not appear to be any additional money.”
Jacobs said the language in the law signed earlier this month by President Bush appears to authorize the use of disaster funds the state gets to pay for the rescue, care, shelter and essential needs of pets of evacuees.
“It’s obviously hard to provide shelters for people,” he said, “and dealing with pets makes it that more complicated. But it is important.”
Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland, is the co-chairman of the Legislature’s state homeland security task force. He said at hearings the panel has held Mainers expressed concern about their pets if an evacuation became necessary.
“Do we have enough shelters across the state? No, we don’t,” he said. “As we develop additional shelters, the plan is to have them ready to accommodate pets because we don’t have many that can right now, so I think we are ahead of the curve on this one.”
Strimling praised the York County emergency plans that got a workout in the flooding last spring. He said there was shelter capacity, including for pets.
“I wish we could say that about everywhere in the state,” he said, “but we can’t.”
Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, also serves on the task force. He agrees with Strimling that the state needs to plan for pets at its emergency shelters.
“We saw what happened in New Orleans,” he said. “We saw people that would not leave their homes. I know it sounds kind of funny, but people would not leave their homes without their dogs and cats. This also came up at our hearings.”
Hastings said local emergency planning officials are trying to identify at least one “pet friendly” shelter in each community or group of communities included in emergency plans. He said that is an ongoing process, and the new federal law recognizes what Maine is already trying to address.
Sen. Susan Collins agreed. She is the chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee that crafted the legislation as a result of its investigation into the government response to Hurricane Katrina.
“What we found was that there was not even planning to take into account Seeing Eye dogs, for example,” she said. “As a result, it was much more difficult to evacuate people who truly needed to have their pets with them. We also found, on a human level, that people were very reluctant to evacuate without their pets.”
Collins said it was clear to her committee that planners need to take into account the practical impact of citizens refusing to evacuate without their pets and plan for evacuating those pets.
“One might question in a situation where there is a real crisis and a disaster is upon us, why people would not abandon their pets, but the fact is they won’t and they want to take them with them,” she said.
Collins acknowledged state and local governments will have to pay for some of the costs for expanding the capacity of shelters to include pets. She said the federal government is providing some grant money to the states for shelter improvements.
A Zogby poll conducted a year ago indicated 2-to-1 support for requiring rescue plans for pets. But only 4 percent indicated government agencies should perform pet rescues and 42 percent said animal rights groups should conduct the rescues with 40 percent saying it should be a shared responsibility between pet owners, government agencies and private groups.
A clear majority, 54 percent, disagreed with the “no pets” policy used by emergency agencies in the aftermath of Katrina.