A Veterinarian’s Guide to Preparing For a Hurricane

Jillian Sinclair | FVMA | Published: Issue 3 2023

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When natural disasters like hurricanes strike, veterinarians play a critical role in safeguarding the lives of animals under their care. Proper preparation is essential to ensuring the safety and well-being of these animals during and after such events. In this article, we will explore the key considerations that veterinarians must take into account when preparing for natural disasters like hurricanes. By addressing these factors, veterinarians can effectively protect and care for the animals in their care, minimizing the impact of these catastrophic events.

Assess the Vulnerability of Your Practice

To ensure the safety and well-being of all involved, veterinarians must assess the vulnerability of their facilities and develop comprehensive plans to mitigate potential risks.

Identifying Potential Hazards: Identify the specific natural disasters that commonly occur in your region, with a focus on hurricanes. Understanding the risks associated with hurricanes, such as strong winds, flooding, power outages, and infrastructure damage, provides a foundation for effective preparedness.

Assessing Facility Location: Evaluate the geographic location of your veterinary practice to determine its susceptibility to hurricane impacts. Consider factors such as proximity to coastlines, flood zones, and historical storm patterns. This assessment will help you gauge the level of risk your practice faces and inform your preparedness efforts.

Conducting a Structural Assessment: Hire a professional engineer to evaluate the structural integrity of your facility. Their expertise can identify any weaknesses or areas vulnerable to hurricane damage. Assess the foundation, walls, windows, roof, and doors for potential improvements. Implement necessary repairs or reinforcement measures to strengthen the structure if required.

Reviewing Utility Systems: Evaluate the functionality and resilience of essential utilities such as electricity, water, and sewage systems. Assess backup power options, including generators, to ensure continuous operation during power outages. Consider installing sump pumps to prevent flooding in basements or lower-level areas.

Before the Storm

Once veterinarians have fully assessed their practice, it’s time to create a detailed plan of how they will prepare for a hurricane. While we can’t plan for every kind of natural disaster, hurricanes give us enough warning that veterinarians should have a preparation routine to practice before the storm hits. Veterinarians can refer to this checklist of important supplies they should have prepared before the hurricane hits their area. They should be sure to keep supplies in a safe place that is least likely to become damaged during the storm.

Developing an Evacuation Plan: Create a comprehensive evacuation plan for animals, staff, and clients in the event of an approaching hurricane. Establish designated evacuation routes and safe destinations where animals can be transported and cared for. Communicate this plan to all staff members and ensure they are familiar with their roles and responsibilities.

Securing Vital Records: Make digital copies of essential records, such as medical histories, vaccination records, and client information. Be sure to back up your practice management software in case it gets damaged during the storm. Store these backups in a secure, off-site location or cloud-based storage system. This measure protects important data in case of physical damage to your practice.

Creating an Emergency Supply Kit: Prepare an emergency supply kit that includes essential items such as first aid supplies, medications, food, water, and bedding for animals. Additionally, stock up on emergency equipment like flashlights, batteries, radios, and portable fans to ensure you are well-prepared for any contingencies.

Training Staff Members: Conduct regular training sessions to educate your staff on disaster preparedness and response protocols. Ensure they understand their roles and responsibilities during emergencies, including animal evacuation, first aid, and communication procedures. Practice drills can help improve response efficiency and coordination.

Maintaining Insurance Coverage: Review your insurance policies to ensure they provide adequate coverage for potential hurricane damage. Consider additional coverage options such as flood insurance. Regularly review and update your policies to align with your evolving needs. To be safe, it is a good idea to video around your clinic to show what equipment you have and what it looked like before the storm in case there is severe damage. This ensures you have a record of exactly what you had prior to the storm for your insurance company.

Gathering Emergency Contacts: Compiling an alist of emergency contacts, including local animal control agencies, nearby veterinary hospitals or clinics, and relevant authorities, is crucial. This ensures prompt coordination and access to additional resources if needed, enabling veterinarians to provide comprehensive care and support during a crisis.

Planning for Communication and Notification: Effective communication channels are essential for veterinarians to keep owners, staff, and relevant parties informed about evacuation plans, safety protocols, and updates during and after the disaster. Utilizing phone trees, social media, and other means of communication facilitates efficient information dissemination and ensures the well-being of both animals and their owners.

Identifying Animals: Maintaining accurate records and identification for each animal is paramount during a disaster. Microchipping, tagging, or using other identification methods can greatly assist in reuniting lost or displaced animals with their owners after the event. This step helps ensure a seamless reunification process.

Securing the Facility: Prior to a hurricane, veterinarians should reinforce the windows and doors of the veterinary clinic or hospital, remove any potential flying debris, and verify the structural integrity of the building.

During the Storm

When a hurricane strikes, the safety of veterinary staff, as well as the welfare of their patients, becomes a top priority. Veterinary clinics and hospitals must be well-prepared to navigate the challenges posed by such natural disasters.

Ensuring Staff Safety: Above all else, the well-being of veterinary staff must be protected during a hurricane. Clear instructions should be given to follow local evacuation orders and avoid unnecessary risks. Prioritize staff safety by providing them with necessary resources, such as safety guidelines, emergency contact information, and guidance on evacuation routes. Regular communication should be maintained to keep staff informed about the hurricane’s progress and any changes in protocols.

Providing Care to Hospitalized Patients: In situations where the veterinary clinic remains operational during the hurricane, special attention must be given to the well-being of hospitalized patients. Adequate care and monitoring should be provided, ensuring that patients are comfortable, and their medical needs are met. It is crucial to have sufficient supplies, including food, water, medications, and medical equipment, to sustain patient care during the storm. Backup power generators and systems should be in place to mitigate the impact of potential power outages.

Communicating With Clients: Effective communication with clients is essential during a hurricane. A well-prepared communication plan should be in place to keep clients informed about the clinic’s status, emergency contact information, and any changes in service availability. Utilize various communication channels, such as social media, email, phone calls, or text messages, to relay important updates to clients. Regularly update the clinic’s website or social media platforms to ensure accurate and timely information is available.

After the Storm

In the aftermath of a hurricane, veterinarians play a critical role in assessing and addressing the damage caused, ensuring the well-being of their patients and clients, and collaborating with local authorities and animal welfare organizations. As the storm subsides, veterinarians must swiftly evaluate the physical condition of their clinics, prioritize urgent cases, reschedule appointments, and provide updates to clients regarding reopening and service availability. This phase requires effective coordination, communication, and adaptability to navigate the challenges brought forth by the hurricane’s impact.

Assessing and Addressing Damage: Once the hurricane has passed, veterinarians must conduct a thorough assessment of the clinic’s physical condition. This includes examining the building structure, equipment, and any potential safety hazards. Any damage or safety issues should be addressed promptly to ensure a safe environment for both staff and patients. In cases where the facility is not functional, veterinarians should make arrangements for relocation or alternate care options to continue providing essential veterinary services.

Contacting Clients and Rescheduling Appointments: Open and effective communication with clients is crucial during the post-hurricane period. Veterinarians should promptly contact clients to reschedule appointments that were postponed due to the hurricane. Various communication channels should be utilized to disseminate information regarding the clinic’s reopening, revised operating hours, and appointment availability. By keeping clients informed, veterinarians can alleviate concerns and maintain trust within the community.

Prioritizing Urgent Cases: After a hurricane, there may be a surge of animals in need of immediate veterinary care. Veterinarians must prioritize urgent cases based on the severity of the condition. Critical cases requiring immediate attention should be promptly addressed, while non-urgent cases can be rescheduled accordingly. It is important to allocate resources efficiently, ensuring that all animals receive the necessary care and attention during this challenging time.

Coordinating with Local Authorities and Animal Welfare Organizations: Collaboration with local authorities, disaster management agencies, and animal welfare organizations is crucial in post-hurricane recovery efforts. Veterinarians should actively participate in coordinating resources, providing assistance, and sharing information to support the affected community. By working together, they can ensure a more comprehensive response, effectively address animal welfare concerns, and contribute to the overall recovery process. Some associations and entities veterinarians should consider becoming involved with are:

  • Local veterinary practices and practitioners
  • Pharmaceutical distributors
  • Local pharmacies
  • Regional animal medical emergency facilities
  • Florida disaster relief groups such as:
    • Florida State Agricultural Response Team (SART): Florida SART is a collaborative group of government and private organizations committed to enhancing disaster preparedness across all types of emergencies. Its main focus is to facilitate a well-coordinated and efficient response for the animal and agricultural sectors in Florida.
    • Florida Veterinary Corps: To aid in emergencies involving animals, the FVMA, University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, and Florida Department of Agriculture and ConsumerServices have created a volunteer corps of veterinarians and technicians. Volunteers assist response teams at local, state, and national levels, addressing animal and human needs. These professionals form part of the StateAgriculture Response Team (SART) and serve underEmergency Support Function (ESF) 17 and the StateEmergency Response Team. They contribute to assessing veterinary response capabilities, providing emergency animal treatment, and supporting disease surveillance and control efforts for Florida’s animals.

Ensuring that veterinarians are well-prepared for hurricanes is crucial for safeguarding the well-being of both animals and their owners during these natural disasters. By developing comprehensive emergency plans, stockpiling necessary supplies, and conducting regular training exercises, veterinarians can effectively respond to the unique challenges posed by hurricanes. Collaboration with local authorities, veterinary associations, and community organizations is vital for sharing resources and expertise. Ultimately, the proactive preparation of veterinarians plays a vital role in minimizing the impact of hurricanes on the welfare of animals and promoting a swift recovery for affected communities.

Information for this article was provided by Drs. Terry Clekis and Lawrence Garcia. Images courtesy of Dr. Terry Clekis.

Terry Clekis, DVM, MS

Dr. Terry Clekis has served as the FVMA’s Disaster Preparedness Committee chair since 2010, where he is responsible for ensuring that all veterinary hospitals have a plan of action for their clients and patients in the event of a natural disaster.

Larry Garcia, DVM, MS

Dr. Lawrence “Larry” Garcia is a clinical assistant professor in Shelter Medicine and Surgery as well as medical director for the Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service (VETS) Team at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.

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