How the chaos of Katrina helped save pets from flooding in Texas

  • Volunteers in boats rescue people and their pets from neighborhoods near Interstate 45 in Houston on Tuesday. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford Jabin Botsford

  • A man carries a pitbull through floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey in Houston on Tuesday. Bloomberg

  • People and their pets seek shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston on Monday. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford Jabin Botsford

Washington Post
Thursday, August 31, 2017

As Hurricane Harvey pelted Houston with heavy rains over the weekend, a local television news station broadcast footage of flood evacuees sitting outside the George R. Brown Convention Center. The people weren’t waiting for space inside what would become a massive emergency shelter. They were choosing to remain outdoors because their pets were not allowed in with them.

That policy changed within a day, after a top elected official made clear that both humans and animals were welcome at the city’s evacuation centers.

“We all saw what followed Hurricane Katrina, where people weren’t allowed to keep their pets with them, so they said, ‘Well, never mind, we’ll just stay outside,’ ” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told reporters Sunday evening. “We obviously don’t want that to happen.”

Emmett wasn’t making just a passing reference to the catastrophe that hit New Orleans in 2005. During that disaster, many residents stayed put – and died in some cases – rather than heed rescuers’ instructions to leave pets behind as waters inundated homes. Others faced wrenching choices when they arrived at shelters that would not allow animals. One small white dog, Snowball, became a national symbol of these emotional separations after he was taken from the arms of a child who was boarding a bus to Texas that did not take pets. The boy cried so hard, according to an Associated Press report, that he vomited.

One 2006 poll found that 44 percent of people who chose not to evacuate during Katrina did so because they did not want to abandon their pets. Even so, the Louisiana SPCA estimated, more than 100,000 pets were left behind and as many as 70,000 died throughout the Gulf Coast.

A dozen years later, Katrina is viewed as a watershed moment in planning for pets during natural disasters. It changed federal and state policies – and, animal advocates and experts say, made clear that Americans have widely embraced the idea of dogs and cats as family members.

At the time, emergency management plans took only people into account. The result was an ad hoc approach to animals, with some responders flat-out turning away dogs and others agreeing to evacuate them. Animal protection groups, which quickly became overwhelmed with displaced critters separated from their owners, often found themselves at odds with local and state officials, recalled Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States.

The sense that systems had failed both pets and people quickly reached Capitol Hill. In 2006, Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation requiring local and state authorities who want federal emergency grants to include pets in disaster plans. It also authorized the use of federal funds for pet-friendly emergency shelters.

Snowball was the impetus.