Better Together

April 2019

By Mary Ellen Collins

Coordinated Disaster Response Gains Traction

Wildfires ravage forests. Hurricanes flatten towns. Floods ruin homes and businesses. This wave of natural disasters has become an alarming part of our daily news cycle; however, it has also generated a new, more collaborative level of emergency preparedness and response within the managed wildlife community.

With support and training from the Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Preparedness, Response, and Recovery (ZAHP) Fusion Center, zoos in California, Texas, and North Carolina have taken the lead in creating disaster response plans in concert with their emergency management communities. They are also crossing traditional boundaries and reaching out to include nearby independent facilities. The ZAHP Fusion Center was formed through a cooperative agreement between the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums with the goal of enhancing preparedness for all USDA licensed exhibitors.  The initiative is funded by USDA and housed at AZA.

The results of this approach have been positive and welcome, according to Dick Green, senior director of disaster response at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and founder of the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition (NARSC). “We used to be very turf oriented. There was a basic mistrust between NGOs and local, state and federal authorities who didn’t want to deal with self-deploying, non-regulated responders. Every time NARSC meets now, there is a level of cooperation, trust, and respect that was unheard of before Katrina. I was on a planning call with USDA, AZA, and emergency management this morning, and that wouldn’t have gone on ten years ago.”

Working within the official emergency management system and being open to new partnerships are sensible strategies according to Yvonne Nadler, program manager at ZAHP. “Every state is very different in the ways they manage disasters, and each facility’s approach is driven by their own unique needs. However, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Animal care facilities are uniquely positioned to help each other, but you can’t do it without being organized and developing relationships with the people who do this for a living. Disaster response is a big tent, and there’s room for everyone.”

Partner With the Experts

The Thomas Fire was the largest fire in California state history, and served as the impetus for a 2018 statewide Fire Preparedness Summit organized by Michael Mace, director of animal collections and strategy at San Diego Zoo Global in San Diego, Calif.

“During the fire we received a call from the Santa Barbara Zoo, which needed help from us with regard to providing crates for some of their animals.  We were able to send them our animal care staff, crates and trucks … but getting that call made us realize that we, as the AZA community, could be more organized.”

Summit attendees included AZA and California Association of Zoos and Aquarium members, CAL FIRE and California Highway Patrol, the San Diego and Escondido police and Escondido fire departments, and private sector representatives. Mace also received a call from the USDA, asking if the Undersecretary and two of his staff members could attend, indicating strong interest in Washington, D.C., regarding this type of collaborative education and planning.

The summit included case studies from five institutions on how they managed crises during a natural disaster and a panel discussion with first responders.

“People got to hear directly from the professionals who have the experience to help them in their own planning. When we are dealing with wildfires we are planning for the unpredictable in continually changing circumstances. There was a tremendous amount of information shared, and everyone was fully engaged,” said Mace.

One key point that emerged was the importance of developing relationships with local first responders by inviting them to your property, sharing your protocols, and getting their advice.

“We as an industry have intimate familiarity with our institutions, but it’s easy to forget how very non-traditional our work space is,” said Julia Wagner, special projects, ZAHP Fusion Center and owner, Coalitions Solutions.It’s imperative that [the responders] feel like our partners. They have to establish a comfort level with your property and the concept of animals. They do not like to feel out of their element.”

Learn From Experience 

During Hurricane Harvey a number of Texas institutions and agencies mobilized to assist facilities that were hardest hit. Victoria’s Texas Zoo and Houston’s Downtown Aquarium both sustained significant flooding, and the coalition of responders offered help in the form of staff, pumps, crates, boats, and even the loan of a helicopter from a San Antonio Zoo board member. Despite the fact that those who rose to the challenge already had a strong communication network in place, post-hurricane discussions led to more formal coordination.

“After Harvey we held two meetings to learn what we could do better,” said Jonathan Reading, director, animal care for mammals at San Antonio Zoo. “We had people from a lot of the zoos that helped with Harvey; fire and police departments; university response teams; USDA; and local and state veterinary agencies. At the first meeting we talked about what our roles would be. At the second meeting we talked about the things we needed training in, like Incident Command System, hazardous materials, first aid, and personal protection equipment. All of us who responded to Harvey did it based on our own zoo knowledge. Now we’re learning how to do it with the expertise from state and federal level agencies.”

“Harvey was a wake-up call for us,” said Tim Morrow, chief executive officer and executive director of the Zoo. “San Antonio floods easily and we’re located on a river. We often get flash flooding here and we’ve gotten much more serious about it, and more conservative about having people spend the night here if something happens. We have also bought a boat to get around our own property. We can’t assume that we won’t have something big happen just because it hasn’t in the past. You have to plan ahead. We have a much better process in place for ourselves because of what other people experienced.”

Broaden Your Network  

In addition to working closely with emergency management professionals, this collaborative framework of disaster response includes finding common ground within the entire managed wildlife community in your vicinity.

“Our institutions, whether large or small, public or private, rural or urban—all have their own set of advantages and disadvantages and everyone can benefit by looking at their own geography,” said Wagner. “Think about nontraditional partners and think out of the box about needs. For example, a nearby facility that may not have a lot of resources may have large acreage that could provide an opportunity for a staging site. The only way you can assess those resources and opportunities is to get together and have a conversation.”

To that end, the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C., hosted a meeting in October 2018 that was attended by representatives from zoos in both North and South Carolina, the N.C. aquariums, NCSU College of Veterinary Medicine, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, the Duke Lemur Center, and the Sylvan Heights Bird Park, as well as first responders.

“This was the first time all of these people were in the same room together having this conversation,” said Jb Minter, the director of animal health in the veterinary division at the Zoo.  “There had never been an opportunity to get together and see what we all have to offer when it comes to disaster relief. Who has what? Supplies? Trailers? Room? How could we facilitate helping each other? Our big push was to get people to break out of their boxes and talk to people they didn’t know.” 

Wagner emphasizes the importance of getting past real and perceived barriers between different types of facilities. “We, as an industry, need to know ourselves and look at the entire exhibitor community. Sometimes it’s a matter of introducing person A to person B and saying, ‘This is what you have in common.’”

Moving Forward

No matter how good your disaster response plan is, complacency can be its own disaster, according to Jeff Turner, director of emergency management at the Texas Animal Health Commission.

“After Rita and Katrina we had about ten years with no hurricane impacts. People forget the lessons learned. They develop a false sense of security. There are changes in staff.  It takes Mother Nature to come back and remind us that we need to prepare.” Turner now includes zoos in his annual “hurricane huddle” with the state veterinary office, USDA APHIS, livestock owners, and NGO partners.

It is also critical to keep your plan fluid and updated said Green. “We’re writing plans based upon today. Climate change is irrefutable and that will change the type and intensity of natural disasters.  The plans you wrote for 2015 probably won’t be viable for 2020.”

As word spreads about the success of this integrated approach to emergency response, a growing number of facilities are interested in following in the footsteps of colleagues in California, Texas and North Carolina. “Discussions have begun in Florida and the Florida Association of Zoos and Aquariums has expressed an interest in spearheading this initiative,” said Wagner. “We’re also having conversations about where it makes sense to approach this from a regional level, like maybe the Gulf Coast.”

Disaster response is an area in which there truly is strength in numbers, as long as those numbers speak the same language, understand their roles, and work within a single framework.  If you join with all of your wildlife management colleagues and rely on the experts who are just as committed as you are to keeping your staff, guests, and animals safe—it will be a winning collaboration for everyone.

Mary Ellen is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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