Like all facilities, Safari West in Santa Rosa, Calif., has multiple emergency plans in place—including relocation arrangements with zoos in San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento. When a staff member woke owner Peter Lang at 10pm one Sunday, all plans went out the window. A wildfire was advancing so quickly that the sheriff and highway patrol ordered immediate evacuation.
“When you’ve got less than an hour, how do you move 12 giraffes to a facility that would welcome you? You don’t. How do you move 50 Cape buffalo? You don’t. All of your contingency plans become unrealistic,” said Lang. “I chose to wander off in the dark and deal with the situation by myself.”
Throughout the night, he put the animals out into an open, heavily grazed pasture that was less likely to burn. He used tractors and forklifts to move items out of the fire’s path. Hotspots burned until Wednesday morning. Ultimately, the fire destroyed all exterior fencing for Safari West’s 30 different species of hoof stock, as well as trucks, equipment, crates, four houses and two barns on the ranch.
While the wildfire was unprecedented, it prompted Safari West to be vigilant about emergency procedures at all times. Lang makes sure all surplus items and broken equipment are dealt with immediately and that all vehicles have keys in them, so that they’re easy to move in an emergency.
“Anyone left standing has to make the decisions. Unlocked enclosures on non-dangerous animals would be one of the ways you can let creatures in peril get out, and deal with catching them later. What’s right and what’s wrong become on-the-spot decisions,” said Lang.
Reaction time proved to be critical last summer for Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colo. It’s not unusual for late afternoon storms to come through the mountains, but last August was different. After hearing something hit the roof of the administration building during a meeting, Bob Chastain, president and chief executive officer at the Zoo, went to look out a glass door. Soon, baseball- and softball-sized hailstones came flying in through the skylight. Almost immediately, a Zoo guest appeared with a head injury. A minute after that, a second injured guest arrived.
The Zoo began its incident command system, which is set up daily. Staff ushered guests into buildings and away from windows. The medical team set up a triage in the gift shop. Keepers shifted animals indoors.
“We have specific emergency plans for specific events. We don’t have one for giant softball-sized hail. The incident command system can be used for everything from a 911 event to a single guest splinter in the Zoo because it’s a scalable system. Once you understand how it scales, it can scale up very rapidly,” said Chastain.
The hail damaged everything—fence posts, lights, golf carts, trashcans, trees and every car in the parking lot. Every roof was damaged and most windows broken, leaving the floors covered in glass. Water spewed out of heating vents and electrical sockets.
“Immediately after [a disaster] is a phase of recovery that a lot of people don’t think about. It’s your legal obligation to mitigate further damage,” said Chastain.
For the first time in its 93-year history, the Zoo closed for four days. All employees, many impacted by the hailstorm themselves, showed up and divided up work. The Zoo hired an outside company to spend a week addressing safety issues. Then, they began working with the insurance company and contractors to figure out repair costs. Currently, the Zoo is in the final repair phase, which is expected to last until at least August 2019.
The effects of a natural disaster aren’t all physical. Even with adequate preparation time, the aftermath takes a definite emotional toll.
In the three days leading up to Hurricane Irma, the Naples Zoo in Naples, Fla., moved all animals (except for large hoof stock) into hurricane-proof buildings. The horticulture team identified loose branches. The Zoo took down all the shake cloth on the perimeter fencing and backed up all of its records. They stored water in clean 50-gallon garbage cans and gathered two months’ worth of food for the animals.
Naples Zoo was closed to the public for a month while the entire staff cleaned up and rebuilt structures. The Zoo, which sits on a 100-year-old botanical garden, weathered high winds and damage from fallen trees. In a show of camaraderie, the staff came together for a catered lunch every day.
“Taking care of the people who are helping with the recovery is an important piece,” said Liz Harmon, director of animal programs at the Zoo. The Zoo received offers of outside support, which it greatly appreciated.
Two weeks in, when morale was flagging, a group assembled from five Midwest zoos traveled to Florida to build fences, replace a barn, and clean up branches. The Zoo listed cleaning supplies on an Amazon wish list, and several facilities around the country contributed.
“Mentally it had a huge impact,” said Harmon. “Still two years later, if there’s a hurricane anywhere in the Atlantic, we all kind of have a hard time breathing.”
While the Houston Zoo in Houston, Texas, was fortunate to escape Hurricane Harvey without any major physical damage, another serious challenge arose. Fifty-one inches of rain fell over two days, creating lakes and damage around the Zoo that blocked staff and deliveries.
“The day we would have run out of some of the key foods, the delivery trucks were finally able to make it through. Considering what could have happened and considering what happened to a number of other facilities in Texas, we feel very blessed,” said Lee Ehmke, president and chief executive officer at the Zoo.
The hurricane prompted the Zoo to completely re-evaluate their emergency procedures. Houston Zoo reached out to AZA member organizations for support and advice on creating new emergency plans.
“One of the things we found was that the plan we were working from was based on particular individuals being in various roles in the organization, which had changed over time,” said Ehmke. He recommends designating staff to continually monitor and update emergency plans so that contact details are always current.
The Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, La., credits their regular natural disaster drills for getting through Hurricane Katrina. Ahead of the storm, staff members distributed water cubes throughout the Zoo for the animals, brought in extra fuel for vehicles and generators, designated a Storm Rider Team to stay on the property, and kept steady communication with local authorities and power companies.
Post-Katrina, most of the recovery efforts focused on meticulous documentation. To this day, some facilities are still managing storm damage—plenty of which wasn’t apparent until years later.
“It is an extremely time-consuming process, but worth it in the long run for assisting with all of the massive repairs that were needed,” said Kyle Burks, executive vice president and chief operating officer. “FEMA was very responsive due to how well the damage was documented.”
The New York Aquarium in Brooklyn, N.Y., has been working with FEMA and both the city and state of New York for the last six years to recover after Hurricane Sandy. In 2012, a storm surge inundated the Atlantic side of Brooklyn at high tide under a full moon, filling over 90 percent of the Aquarium facility with two to five feet of water.
“When the storm surge came across it was very damaging in and of itself but the more lasting damage came from the fact that all of our subgrade spaces filled with water. Even when the surge retreated, we still had four or five large exhibit spaces and other buildings that remained filled with water the morning after the storm,” said Jon Forrest Dohlin, vice president and director at the Aquarium.
The entire district was without power, so for the first three days, Aquarium staff used small portable pumps to remove some of the millions of gallons of water until the Wildlife Conservation Society (headquartered in The Bronx) could supply larger generators and pumps. By the fifth day of pumping water, the staff was able to get down to submerged tanks, saving approximately 85 percent of the collection.
The Aquarium re-opened in May 2013, seven months later, to a tremendous outpouring of support. Only 60 percent of the Aquarium was opened, but the enthusiasm continued for the next two years. By this summer, the Aquarium will be back to 80 percent of its rebuild after six years of nonstop work, plenty of which has taken place behind the scenes.
“It’s humbling to me how much time and effort and passion have been poured into this by people throughout the organization. The whole FEMA process is incredibly time consuming and complex. There are people here who have done nothing but work on that for the last six years,” said Dohlin.
Hillary Richard is a writer based in Bloomfield, N.J.