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Why the “Texas Freeze” Highlights the Importance of Disaster Preparedness for Animal Welfare Organizations

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Blindsided by freezing temperatures, power outages, and limited resources, many Texas animal shelters, sanctuaries, SPCAs, and humane societies are struggling to keep their animals safe during this emergency. Furthermore, animal cruelty cases are increasing due to animals being neglected and left out in the freezing cold. Being hailed as the “Texas Freeze,” these recent events shed light on an important concept that all animal welfare organizations should be aware of: disaster preparedness. 

Disaster preparedness can be summed up in a simple phrase: “expect the unexpected.” Here at the Animal Welfare Organization Insurance Program (AWOIP), we know all about preparing for the unexpected when protecting against claims and incidents resulting from unforeseen events. Extreme weather events, as we’ve seen in Texas, are no exception.

Obviously, different parts of the country experience different climate changes, resulting in various extreme weather and natural disasters that can occur (ex. wildfires in California, tornadoes in the Midwest, etc.). However, disaster preparedness isn’t limited to just extreme weather-related events. Natural disasters, prolonged power outages, even water damage to a facility due to broken plumbing can constitute a disaster preparedness plan to be deployed. “Disasters” shouldn’t be limited to just large-scale events.

Animal organizations (and Texans everywhere) were not expecting this freeze to cause such an emergency, and I can’t say I blame them. Experiencing low temperatures is one thing, but this time around, the ripple effect of freezing temps, power grid failures, and frozen water systems hit hard and fast. This especially created an immense challenge in keeping shelter animals safe and how or if shelters had the resources to relocate their animals to a safer location.

Luckily, the strength of the animal welfare community flexed its muscles to come to the rescue of neglected animals, shelters, and other animal organizations across the state to relocate hundreds of animals during this weather emergency. The ASPCA® and Wings of Rescue helped relocate over 170 shelter dogs and cats from areas drastically affected by the freeze. Thanks to these efforts, these animals are on their way to being adopted into their forever homes! 

However, for some organizations, these events have proven fatal for their operations and the animals they care for. Primarily Primates, a nonprofit wildlife sanctuary located in the San Antonia area, suffered the loss of dozens of animals, including a chimpanzee, several monkeys, an unknown number of birds, and some lemurs.

So what should animal welfare organizations take away from the “Texas Freeze?”

Simply put, “expect the unexpected.” Taking the time to compose a well-thought-out and highly detailed emergency/disaster plan should help identify potential threats, both inside and outside the organization, and how to best prepare for them at any given moment. When identifying threats and possible emergency events, asking questions like “What could happen?”, “How could it happen?” and “Where could it Happen?” are great starting questions to ask that will help get the ball rolling in identifying both big and small events to prepare for. Along with identifying potential emergency situations comes the task of understanding how to respond to each of these events. Ask critical “Who, What, When, Where, & How” questions that will help guide your organization’s plan on how to respond to particular events effectively and efficiently. Here are a few examples:

  • Who needs to be notified when one of these events occurs (i.e., emergency response team, fire department, etc.)?
  • Who is responsible for carrying out the emergency response plan (i.e., emergency plan personnel hierarchy)?
  • What immediate and long-term contingencies should be put into place when one of these particular events occurs? 
  • When does the emergency response team/emergency services need to be notified?
  • When do contingencies need to be employed?
  • How will emergency response teams/emergency services be notified? 
  • How will resources be used and deployed in the event of an emergency/disaster?

This is not an exhaustive list of questions, but they should help establish a solid framework for an emergency/disaster plan. A good emergency/disaster plan should also include steps on how to recover from the event. There are great examples and tips for composing a disaster and emergency preparedness plan for shelters that can be found here:

Where this gets tricky is when an emergency constitutes the evacuation and relocation of animals. Smaller shelters and rescues may not have the network and resources available to relocate animals compared to larger organizations. Some recommendations that we make to our members is to work with their local fire department or emergency services to review and establish a facility evacuation plan specific to their area. Also, connecting with other shelters or organizations that may have the resources and capacity to take in more animals in an emergency is a great idea (not to mention it strengthens the animal welfare community).

“Expect the unexpected” can’t be stressed enough. Being prepared for as many possible emergency/disaster situations and having a plan can be the difference between life and death for animals and the organizations that care for them.