When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and surrounding communities in August of 2005, Roxana Petzold was one of thousands of volunteers who traveled to the region to offer help in the aftermath of the storm. It was an eye-opening experience for her on so many levels, particularly as it relates to the fate of the pets — and their owners — during and after the storm.
As Petzold notes, many people who didn’t evacuate in advance of landfall said it was because they didn’t want to leave their pets behind.
“I think one of the biggest takeaways the emergency management community had from Katrina was: We need to do more to support animals,” she said. “If we don't provide additional support for animals we lose lives, we lose people, in the process.”
Petzold has carried this experience with her, along with a deep love and appreciation for animals, in various volunteer and paid roles she has taken on the past 17 years: as a National Field Response volunteer with the ASPCA, as a member of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals during and after Superstorm Sandy, and as the Bronx Disaster Program Manager for the American Red Cross in Greater New York, her current job.
“I have always been a pet lover,” said Petzold, whose own household often includes a fostered animal or two. “I spent a lot of my youth around animals. My great uncle had a farm, so there’s always been some kind of critter in my life.”
Along with her day-to-day duties at the Red Cross, coordinating assistance and relief following local emergencies, Petzold is also involved in building community relationships and providing disaster readiness education and resources. This includes pet preparedness for emergencies such as home fires — which kill more than 40,000 pets each year, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association —and hurricanes.
One way Petzold does this is via the Companion Animal Task Force for the Red Cross of Greater New York, a group she was asked to assemble and lead in 2018 that seeks to better address the needs of pets and pet owners impacted by local disasters in New York City. Petzold also serves on the National American Red Cross Pet Task Force.
“Almost every single pet-owning household, around 98 percent, feel that their pet is part of the family,” she said. “So there is no question; there's no choice. You know they want their pet with them. They will rescue their pet. We know, again from Katrina and from other disasters, that if they can't evacuate with their pet, they either won't evacuate or they will go back at the worst possible time to try and save their pet. And the consequences are loss of life, loss of life of first responders, or added cost to the jurisdiction.”
At the Red Cross, Petzold has worked with colleagues and community partners to take critical steps to acknowledge and plan for pets in every step of the disaster response process.
“What we as an organization have learned is pets are a part of every phase of our disaster cycle,” she said. “And almost every program or initiative we have can touch pets. So, we have developed some wonderful planning and preparedness guidance for households.”
Through Petzold’s experiences in Katrina and New York, she has seen firsthand how important pets are to their owners and how important it is to include them when planning for emergencies. As she says, “If you help the pets, you help the people.”
She adds: “For very many people your pet is more than this animal that you take for a walk. Your pet is a part of the family.”
The Red Cross provides many resources for pet owners. Visit the Red Cross website for a guide about how to prepare your pets for an emergency evacuation and help them recover afterwards. You can also get the free Red Cross app for Pet First Aid: Text “GETPET” to 90999, visit redcross.org/mobileapps, or download from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.