Justice of the Peace Randy Higgins said it became “glaringly obvious” after the April tornado in Faulkner County that animal welfare needs to be part of the disaster-preparedness plan.
Higgins is chairman of the Courts and Public Safety Committee of the Faulkner County Quorum Court.
“The primary issue we learned from the tornado is that we do not have any provisions in our disaster-response plan to deal with animal welfare,” Higgins said. “I believe we had plenty of voluntary resources, but we just did not have a plan to utilize them.
“It was challenging for incident command to look at these issues when, quite frankly, they’re looking at a number of fatalties and people who lost their homes,” he said. “It’s not that animals weren’t important; they’re just not in the plan.”
Higgins said the Courts and Public Safety Committee is sponsoring a grassroots committee that is working to develop a disaster plan to address animal welfare.
Donna Clawson of Conway is leading that committee to create the Faulkner County Animal Welfare Disaster Plan.
“They know I’m a big dog lover, and I’m one of the Friends of the Conway Animal Shelter,” Clawson said.
Higgins said she is “well-respected” among the rescue organizations.
Clawson created a core committee, which includes Chris Quinn, president of Friends of the Conway Animal Shelter; Vickie Crutchfield, a Faulkner County real estate agent; Danny Leigh, animal-control officer in Mayflower; and Susan Shaddox of Conway.
“We are going to expand [the committee] because I want lots of input,” Clawson said. “We are planning on going to at least one site — it might be Joplin [Missouri] — that has an exemplary disaster plan. I don’t want to try to reinvent the wheel.”
Also, Clawson said she and Faulkner County Sheriff Andy Shock plan to tour rescue organizations’ facilities to see what resources are available.
Her goal is to create a list of names for authorities to call when animals are found.
“In a disaster, if they round up horses or goats or sheep, or whatever they have, where are you going to put them? The county judge will call the animal-welfare coordinator, and [the coordinator will] say, ‘OK, here are the people who can take the animals.’
The list of organizations that can take animals can be utilized year-round, she said.
“I think these rescue groups are wonderful and loving people who are going to help in the disaster, and I’m going to give them all an opportunity to participate,” Clawson said.
An option that Clawson said she is finding in her research of disaster plans is to have a central location to take found animals and donated supplies.
“I am seeing that the easiest thing is going to be to have one place to send the animals, one place to donate the money,” she said.
She said the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office is taking the brunt of the responsibility now.
Shock said he is “inundated” with calls about animals, to the point that it is hindering his and the deputies’ jobs.
“My goal is to fix that,” Clawson said. “I’m going to make sure we have people ready to step in if there’s a disaster and do what’s right for the animals.”
Clawson said that throughout the process, she will stay in touch with Higgins and the Quorum Court committee. She said her goal is to have a plan developed by September to present in October to the full Quorum Court.
Catherine Swift, literacy instructor at the University of Central Arkansas, is leading free workshops to address the issue.
Animals in Disasters: Awareness and Preparedness will be held from 5-7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday in UCA’s Torryeson Library. Participants who attend the two-day workshop will be taught how typical hazards affect animals and what can be done to reduce the impact disasters have on animals. Attendees will also learn about resources available to help communities recover from a disaster and how to garner community support for a disaster-preparedness plan involving animals.
Higgins, who is working with Swift to help address the animal issue, said he signed up for the Animals in Disasters workshop. Workshops on animals in disasters and community planning were held earlier this month.
Higgins has appointed a committee to develop a plan to get a county animal shelter, too. Faulkner County has $845,000 collected from a voluntary property tax to go toward a shelter, but he said operating funds are needed. The committee, which includes county and city officials, is looking at options that include building a shared city-county shelter or adding to the current city shelter to provide room for county animals.
“He has been the most wonderful, cooperative person that I’ve found in politics anywhere,” Swift said.
She said she and Higgins got together after the tornado and realized it was obvious that a plan is needed to deal with animals in the aftermath of a disaster.
“The biggest problem was Faulkner County does not have an animal shelter, nor do they have a disaster plan for animals,” Swift said.
“I went down to Vilonia immediately Monday morning following the tornado,” which occurred on a Sunday night, she said.
She has a background of working with horses, Swift said, and has done volunteer work with the state veterinarian.
“What we found was that there was no command center for animals,” Swift said. “Big, wonderful rescue organizations came to help and had to be turned away.
“The city thought the county has responsibility. Pets were kind of being handled by different rescue groups who banded together. Most groups realized, with no guardian angels to come down and save them, without anyone in position of authority to be taking care of the animal problem — we realized the groups had to work together,” she said.
“Who bore the brunt were the animal clinics and the vet techs who worked day and night at their own expense to take care of every animal,” she said. “They’re the unsung heroes.”
Swift said “three waves” happen after a tornado.
In the first wave are “injured animals and animals found in the rubble while you’re cleaning up,” she said.
In the second wave, “there are animals that temporarily have gotten disoriented, but they’ll come back to the house, even if the house is blown away,” Swift said.
She said a woman in Vilonia whose truck was blown four blocks away found her golden retriever — 10 days later — asleep in the truck waiting for her.
“We’re seeing that third wave: People have their animals, but they don’t have their homes,” and some people are in rental units that don’t allow pets, Swift said.
“This is where I think a county shelter would be beneficial because you know it’s a temporary condition,” Swift said.
She said it was the same story three years ago when a tornado hit Vilonia.
“Having gone through this trauma for the second time in three years, people are coming to their senses and saying, ‘We can’t do this again; there’s got to be a better way.’”
For more information or to register for the seminars, visit uca.edu/outreach and search for “animals,” or call (501) 450-5811.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.