KENAI — Despite the clear sky and warm temperature last weekend, more than 25 people huddled inside of Tustamena Elementary school in Kasilof for a new kind of emergency drill.
In the school’s gymnasium people were housed, as they normally would be, with cots, water, food and other supplies while the other side of the building was filled with the yips, barks and meows of the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s newest shelter residents, local pets.
“In past disasters it has become very evident that people are so attached to their pets that a lot of them, if their pets can’t go to a shelter, they aren’t going to go,” said Eric Mohrmann, emergency manager with the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
While the final plan for housing pets has yet to be integrated into the borough’s disaster response plan, Saturday’s test was one of the final steps in a process that began with a congressional amendment to the Stafford Act, the national disaster relief and emergency assistance act.
According to the act, grants to improve emergency shelters were approved in a 2006 Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act amendment.
“We did one small test and this is the larger exercise to test that plan,” Mohrmann said. “Then we’ll take the lessons that we learned from this and modify the plan and make it more usable and more friendly.”
Mohrmann said the weekend test was in partnership with the Red Cross, which is tasked with managing the shelter after the borough provides it.
He said he spent most of his time shooting video of the drill to show to the school district in the hopes that it would agree that housing pets in the same building as evacuees was a viable option.
Mohrmann said his office had also tested the option of putting animals up in a heated tent outside.
The process for pretend-evacuees was simple, although there were a few hiccups along the way.
Mohrmann said people registered when they arrived at the shelter and were sent to another registration area where they were photographed with their pets and then allowed to leave them with kennels, food and water.
“The owner is still responsible for that pet,” Mohrmann said. “They can’t just leave the shelter, they have to stay at the shelter with their pet. They’re also responsible to walk the pet and make sure it’s got water and food, et cetera.”
One of the things he learned, Mohrmann said, was that volunteers staffing the people-registration area needed to know the rules for the pet-registration area so there is no confusion about policy.
While the shelter could be set up to accommodate most pets, Mohrmann said livestock and dangerous animals wouldn’t be allowed inside.
“We’re going to include in our plan some ideas where you could take your livestock,” he said.
The borough is equipped to house several hundred people at a time but Mohrmann said in his experience very few people seem to need the shelter.
“Alaskans are pretty self-reliant,” he said. “We’ve seen from previous events, for example, the most we’ve ever had sheltered was about 26 people.”
Sue Whipp, of Nikiski, is one of the Alaskans that wouldn’t normally leave her home in case of an emergency.
As Whipp walked her doberman, Sunshine, around the elementary school grounds, she explained that she housed more than 50 animals at the Alaska Extended Animal Life Shelter and was set up to handle them indoors if the situation called for it.
However, Whipp said she was happy to see the borough developing a plan and wouldn’t hesitate to bring Sunshine along if her family needed to use the shelter but wouldn’t consider leaving the dog behind.
“My animal is like my daughter, she has to stay with me,” Whipp said. “I’m not going to give her up, you wouldn’t leave your child behind.”
Kristina Sopkowiak, 11, of Soldotna, carried her California Sunshine rabbit Alaska around outside of the school after the drill.
Sopkowiak said she liked the idea of having a place to keep her rabbit safe if she had to evacuate her home, even if Alaska didn’t like all of the hubbub.
“She was kind of freaked out at first, but she calmed down,” Sopkowiak said.
As Sopkowiak buried her nose in Alaska’s fur, a large Newfoundland trotted past her, pausing to drink some water from a bowl sitting in an area marked for animal’s water bowls outside of the building.
Inside, plastic lined the entrance and the walls although Mohrmann said most animals wouldn’t make that much of a mess when kept inside of their kennels.
He suggested people bring their own kennels in emergency situations and that pet needs be incorporated into a family’s emergency plan.
Whipp said the borough providing a place for pet owners to safely care for their animals would take a huge weight off of the shoulders of people forced to leave their homes.
“I think it’s the only real solution to have the pets housed where the people are going to be housed,” Whipp said. “In a disaster you’re not going to want to have people running around all over the place, ‘Where’s my dog, I’ve got to walk my dog.’ So now they’ll know where they are, they’ll know they’re safe and they’ll be taken care of.”
Information from: (Kenai, Alaska) Peninsula Clarion, http://www.peninsulaclarion.com