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Friday, November 02, 2012

Lawmakers’ Opposition to Disaster Relief Leaves People and Pets Out in the Cold

As the nation continues to reel from the effect of Hurricane Sandy, and some areas begin their slow and difficult recovery, it’s a reminder of just how important it was for Congress to pass the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act in 2006, which now requires disaster plans to include pets and service animals. The legislation came in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in the Gulf Coast, after so many people stayed behind and put themselves and first responders at risk because there were no plans to care for pets.

Enactment of this law showed the bipartisan work of lawmakers at their very best: The bill was championed by the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, with Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and the late Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., with former Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn.—and they got a major assist from then-Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and then-House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, and Ranking Member Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., among others. The House passed the bill by a landslide vote of 349 to 24, and the Senate passed it unanimously. President George W. Bush signed it into law, saying that if he could take one thing while evacuating during a disaster, he would take his dog, Barney.

Disaster_-_evacuate_sidebarAbout two-thirds of American households have pets. A Zogby International poll after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast found that 61 percent of pet owners will not evacuate if they cannot bring their pets with them. When people may lose their home, their job, their school, their place of worship, and be separated from loved ones, just knowing that their pet is safe can be an emotional comfort and help get them through a time of crisis.

Because there is now an official federal policy in place on pets in disasters, responding agencies are better prepared to assist families that include pets and service animals in a time of crisis. More emergency shelters allow people to bring their pets when they evacuate disaster-stricken areas, or have separate accommodations set up for temporarily housing pets. The response to Hurricane Sandy took pets and service animals into account, which made the human relief effort more effective, since people were less likely to stay behind and put themselves in danger. In the years following Katrina, residents have benefited from having a federal policy on pets and service animals in disasters.

Seeing how much the law has helped so many thousands of Americans over the last six years makes it even more puzzling that two dozen rogue lawmakers voted against it, putting the worst possible light on Congress. Some of those House members are no longer serving in office, but others are facing competitive election battles next week—such as Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, running in Iowa’s new 4th Congressional District, and Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., running for the open U.S. Senate seat in Arizona. Flake’s opponent, Dr. Richard Carmona, a former U.S. Surgeon General, was very outspoken, in his public service career, in considering the needs of pets in disaster planning.

HSLF ran TV ads on King’s voting record on animal protection issues, and radio ads on Flake’s record, pointing out their opposition to including pets in disaster plans. With Hurricane Sandy on the minds of voters this week, they will surely see that politicians like King and Flake are out of touch with mainstream American values. These lawmakers failed to recognize that caring for pets and service animals in disasters is a necessary component of any successful response, given the close bond that people have with their animals.

If you live in Arizona, or in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, please share these graphics (Flake and King) on Facebook and urge your friends, family, and neighbors to oppose Jeff Flake for Senate and Steve King for Congress.

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