When Disaster Strikes, State Veterinarians Are Ready: Expert Interview

We train what we call ‘county animal response teams’ or CARTS for these situations. We’ve got several of those across the state, and when there’s an incident, we call one of those animal response teams that’s nearby and ask them to go and set up an animal shelter there.
Dr. Rod Hall, State Veterinarian of Oklahoma and the Director of Animal Industry Services

Natural disasters, economic crashes, biothreats, and nuclear conflict—these are just a few of the threats that we live under every day while we go about our daily lives.

Due to the climate change crisis and the rapid globalization of our world—two key features of life in the 21st century—experts say we need to prepare for an increase in extreme weather incidents and viral outbreaks, as well as terrorism and cybersecurity threats. We have to have the mindset of, it’s not if these disasters will happen, but when.

Oklahomans know that when disaster strikes, you have to be ready. Oklahoma County—the most populous county in the state—has been on FEMA’s disaster list 38 times, more than the entire state of New Jersey. On a per-person basis, residents experience nearly three times the national average rate of disasters, including droughts, wildfires, and perhaps most famously, tornadoes.

The state falls in a particularly dangerous section of Tornado Alley, where twisters are less frequent than in Texas or Kansas, but tend to be more powerful.

On the afternoon of May 20, 2013, one such tornado touched down about 15 miles south of the state capital, Oklahoma City and cut a 17-mile path—over a mile wide at its peak—toward the populous area of Moore and the southern part of Oklahoma City. The tornado leveled entire neighborhoods, destroying 300 homes and killing 26 people.

“[The 2013 tornado] was probably the worst thing we had to deal with in the 13 or 14 years since I’ve been here,” Dr. Rod Hall, the State Veterinarian of Oklahoma and the director of Animal Industry Services, said.

The majority of the time, Dr. Hall’s department within the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, is focused on protecting the state’s livestock from disease outbreaks. But when disasters hit, the team plays another important role: disaster management.

Animal Rescue Responses in Disasters

While animal aid is secondary to humanitarian relief efforts, for people who have suffered injuries, the loss of friends, family members and even their homes, losing a pet can add to the feeling of devastation.

“We train what we call ‘county animal response teams’ or CARTS for these situations,” Dr. Hall said. “We’ve got several of those across the state, and when there’s an incident, we call one of those animal response teams that’s nearby and ask them to go and set up an animal shelter there.”

These response teams are made up of veterinarians, veterinary technicians (VTs) and private citizens. When a natural disaster hits, they come with a trailer filled with emergency supplies and kennels to collect pets, treat their injuries, and keep them safe. The group that responded that day was the McClain County Animal Response Team.

CART services are also used in smaller scale cases, such as floods and wildfires, as well. In situations as destructive as the 2013 tornado, the operation must be scaled up with a greater number of facilities.

In these situations, the teams have to make sure they are keeping track of pets that have been brought in by their owners after the tornado has ended. Those whose homes are destroyed needed a safe place to leave their pets while they search for new places to live.

For the pets who were recovered in the rubble and were not microchipped, the team made it their mission to reconnect them with their owners.

“Because we had a lot of houses destroyed, we actually had three different [shelters] going at that time,” Dr. Hall said. “We especially had a lot of dogs that were displaced. We checked them for microchips—some had microchips and that made it simpler to find the right owner, but many of them didn’t.”

“We made hard copies of the photos and put them up at the shelters and we reunited a lot of pets with their owners that way, and by distributing those photos via social media and just different boards.”

In total, they were able to reunite about 75 to 100 pets with their owners. “After two or three months, when we finally decided to close the shelters down, we had an adoption event and adopted all the [remaining] animals out to new owners,” Dr. Hall said.

A Proactive Approach to Animal Care During Crises

When it comes to preparing for disasters, the professionals tasked with creating disaster management procedures try to think ahead as much as possible—rather than having a fully reactive approach—and advise pet and livestock owners to do the same.

There are some precautions that can be taken to prepare for natural disasters, such as making animals identifiable (with ear tags or tattoos for livestock and microchipping for dogs and cats) if they get lost. In the event of a tornado, pets should be secured in kennels and kept with their owners in a safe space so that they can’t flee.

But there is no way to fully protect livestock in case of a tornado. In the aftermath of the 2013 incident, it was estimated that more than 250 livestock died in the storm, including cows, horses, and donkeys.

A lot of the strategy comes down to mapping out how they will react when disaster strikes and having the supplies they need ready so that they can treat injured animals.

In addition to tornadoes, Dr. Hall shared that Animal Industry Services deals with similar situations when wildfires and floods displace people and animals. The majority of wildfires in the state occur in late fall, through winter and into early spring, when it receives the least amount of precipitation. During this time, Oklahoma may get hundreds of wildfires in the span of one month. Flooding can also be a problem, thanks to heavy rainfall in the spring.

These weather events can often be more predictable than tornadoes, so livestock owners can be advised with some notice to take action before the situation is critical, and disaster management teams and CARTs can be prepared to enact their relief efforts.

“For flooding, we advise owners to be weather aware and if it is possible, to get their livestock out of low lying, flood-prone areas onto higher ground. Wildfires are similar in that we normally know when the conditions are right for wildfires,” Dr. Hall said.

Last year, when the northeastern corner of the state experienced a lot of flooding, Dr. Hall’s team helped open up shelters for the animals, mainly cattle and horses, that had to be evacuated from the flooded premises.

State Veterinarians Assisting Pet-Owners During Covid-19

Although Oklahoma’s disaster management programs have somewhat limited resources, its teams dedicated to animal rescue react quickly and execute their action plans smoothly, helping people reunite with their beloved pets during times of crises.

Oklahoma has recently been dealing with an emergency outside of its normal list of disasters; at the end of July, the state experienced a steep increase in Covid-19 case, in congruence with the rest of the U.S. The situation has affected some 275,000 jobs.

“Because of people getting laid off, a lot of families have been having a harder time being able to afford to buy food for their pets,” Dr. Hall said.

This was another area that Dr. Hall’s team was able to help in a small way. In collaboration with GreaterGood and the Humane Society of Tulsa, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry was able to donate hundreds of pounds of pet food across the state to pet owners in need.

“We’ve been working with emergency response partners to make sure pet owners get that assistance,” Dr. Hall said. “We’ve gotten five to six shipments of dog and cat food and some miscellaneous pet supplies and that’s been a really good thing for people.”

This pandemic has begun to snap us out of our slumber and sparked conversations among our leaders about what we can do to be better prepared next time, but there’s still much more work to do.

In the 21st century, we need professionals across industries to be thinking of how we can mitigate disasters in a future where disasters are guaranteed—including in veterinary sciences.

If you are studying to become a veterinarian or a veterinary technician (VT), you can get involved in disaster relief efforts on a local, state, or federal level. Volunteering for an animal disaster relief team in your local area is a great way to position yourself for a career in this niche of veterinary medicine.

Nina Chamlou (Writer)

Nina Chamlou is an avid writer and multi-media content creator from Portland, OR. She writes about aviation, travel, business, technology, and education. You can find her floating around the Pacific Northwest in diners and coffee shops, studying the locale from behind her MacBook.