Pets in Disasters: Interview with Paul Weinberg

Guest Post by Claudia Espinosa

In a constant search for knowledge and intending to explore and share emergency management approaches to animals in disaster, Humanity Road met Paul Weinberg for an interview.

Paul has served as the Emergency Services Coordinator with the City of Santa Monica and is currently part of the Office of Emergency Management (OEM). Mr. Weinberg holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley and a Master’s Degree in Public Policy, with a focus on Emergency Management from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the School of Public Policy.

Mr. Weinberg has been involved in emergency management since 1990. During his career, he has been involved in the preparedness for response , recovery and mitigation of disasters in California including earthquakes, wildfires and other incidents.

Humanity Road had a talk with Paul about pet safety and management during disasters. Here´s what he told us.

Paul, you have been working for a long time in all kinds of disasters, how prepared do you think Americans are for a disaster regarding to their animals.

I can obviously only talk only about Santa Monica and Southern California, but I think American’s across the board have taken significant steps in pet preparedness mainly since Hurricane Katrina. It was a major lesson to learn after this hurricane in 2006, that people are not going to leave their animals behind. It means they may disobey evacuation orders or any other official direction if their pets are not allow to go with them. So, in regards to the macro and governmental level, this has probably been the biggest change. The cities are more aware than they have ever been of the issue with pets, mainly because they have realized time and time again that people are tight with their pets and they are willing to risk themselves to keep their pets at home. Aware of this, governments have incorporated disaster preparedness for pets. As far as individuals go, they have also learned a lot, they have understood that pets may not be welcome in the shelters and that the government is not going to take care of their pets, so they need to take a lot of steps to be prepared and that the responsibility is on them.

Is the bond between people and animals so strong as to put their lives in danger?

People are extremely attached to their animals. We joke in our training that people love their pets more than their spouses, but I don’t think this is un-true at times.

As pets are more dependent than people, humans are willing to put themselves in harm ways to be with them. We need to incorporate this into our city planning.

Can you tell us about the benefits of animal preparedness versus relief?

Sure. It’s always easier to prepare for something than to recover. The resources that we have today, when it’s a beautiful sunny day, are extremely different: I can go to the store and buy pet food, kitty litter, water, etc. During a disaster I won’t be able to do that and more important, after the disaster, we won’t have enough resources to recover. With pet preparedness specifically, instead of being a people problem for the government, if you haven’t prepared for your pet, you are now a people and an animal problem. This is why we incentive everybody to have enough resources for their households, including their pets, for 3 to 5 days.

Now that we know how important animal preparedness is for all of us, including the government, lets talk about how we should prepare for a disaster.

At the individual level, the best way to prepare is food and water. That’s number one. You want to have as much water as possible. The other thing we recommend is to have in your emergency kit all the information about their vaccinations, in case you end up going to a shelter. Some organizations require some shots. Another thing that is advised is to take a photo of your pet in case something happens, like your pet gets out during an earthquake. Micro-chipping as well, and some type of identification. We also recommend a carrier to take them to the shelter, or even if you have to sleep in your car for a day or two, the animal would be safe. Again, during non-disaster times the city has a lot of resources. Use them. It´s not the same during an emergency. Don´t add to the problem.

Paul, do you have any recommendation of what to do with your animals while the disaster is happening?

Well there’s a lot of science that animals can sense disasters much better than us. You know, they have stronger senses than we do. For example, if there’s a fire they smell it before we do. In earthquakes there have been studies about cats or birds feeling it well before we do so you don’t want to grab your dog and duck and cover, they have better instincts, they will duck and cover instinctively. Just let them do their own thing.

Do you think pets also suffer from psychological effects after a disaster?

Absolutely. Clearly after Hurricane Katrina we had a lot of issues with pets being depressed, especially if their social network is disrupted or if their routine is disturbed.

Pets get depressed, and if there’s not much food, they get grumpy. They absolutely have psychological consequences that we should keep an eye on.

Let´s talk about what’s going to happen with our pets if they ever need to go to a shelter.

Because of federal Law, with the exception of service animals, the Red Cross will not allow pets in their shelters. What some organizations and cities do is to develop a plan to offer co-located animal shelters so you will have a human shelter right next to an animal one. The pets will sleep in kennels or cages and they will probably also have open spaces.

It’s important to say that the animals are going to rely on their owners and volunteers to take care of them. The government is not going to have the staff to do that. We´ll bring as much support as we can, but owners will be their pet’s caretakers. One way people can help these animals is by volunteering in different rescue groups, the Red Cross, your local CERT, etc. so when the disaster happens they can help by taking care of the animals.

So here you go. Our Animals in Disaster team agrees with Paul Weinberg that it´s time to prepare your human family members, service animals, and your pets. Don´t wait until it is too late or you may suffer irreparable consequences and become a burden for the government and society.

If you want to help animals during disasters, contact your local CERT, Red Cross chapter or rescue groups and start your training today. To volunteer for Humanity Road visit our online volunteer center.

For more information about Paul Weinberg and the Santa Monica Emergency Office


For more information about how to pet prepare, follow @DisasterAnimals and @jAIDog in twitter.


Claudia Espinosa graduated from Universidad de Chile´s Law School. She recently moved to the United States to expand her international experience in disaster relief and humanitarian aid. She is interested in human rights, humanitarian law and emergency management. Claudia is part of the Humanity Road 2015 Spring intern crew and is serving as a Public Information Officer for Social Media Emergency Management.