Shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, news reports speculated that up to 250,000 abandoned animals may have died from drowning, starvation, dehydration, disease and other causes related to the disaster.
"This was a human problem in addition to an animal problem," said Barbara Ahern of Albany, during a presentation at the state Bar's annual meeting by the Committee on Animals and the Law on "When Disaster Strikes, What Happens to the Animals?"
Ahern said that a line can be drawn between pre- and post-Katrina when it comes to protection of animals. Horrific fires in California and a spate of hurricanes have kept the subject of disasters and disaster response in the public eye.
Recognizing that many are reluctant to leave behind animals they regarded as members of the family, after Katrina Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act mandating that federal, state and local response plans take this bond into account.
According to Wanda Merling of the Humane Society of the United States, who discussed disaster planning at the state Bar conference, the bill covers cats, dogs, rabbits, turtles and pocket pets but not farm animals, aquatics, zoos, exotica and reptiles.
PETS does not provide that any specific action be taken to provide for the evacuation, transportation and sheltering household pets and service animals in harm's way. That is up to state or local agencies.
In New York, a public-private partnership called the Empire State Animal Response Team (ESART) coordinates County Animal Response Teams (CARTS). Actual assistance is provided by volunteers that include veterinarians, animal control personnel and animal welfare groups.
Recently passed legislation shields veterinarians from legal liability for participating in emergency efforts outside their offices and treats volunteers as if they were state employees.
Ahern said that as of November 2018, 28 upstate New York counties have operational CARTS. "Many have excellent plans," she said.
A sticking point in such plans is that animals that are evacuated may be given shelter in an emergency but separated from their owners. The New York Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Services advises that in the event of an evacuation, "make plans now on what to do with your pet in the event you have to leave your home."
During Superstorm Sandy, many evacuees balked at boarding trains or buses without bringing their pets along. But legislation has been passed to create a kind of public transit Noah's Ark.
Any resident of the state evacuating New York City, Long Island or other downstate counties via the MTA or Port Authority can now bring their pets along with them. However, human passengers get priority in seating.