Johnnie Hennessee (left), with Rhett, is the public information officer for the Sullivan County Disaster Area Response Team, and David King, seen with Dean and Maggie Mae, is the DART incident commander. Photo by Ned Jilton.
Imagine a natural disaster affects your hometown and you are ordered to evacuate. Your pets, however, aren’t allowed to leave with you. That’s what happened when Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, and thousands of dogs, cats and other animals were stranded.
In the aftermath, Congress passed the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, requiring states seeking Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance to accommodate pets and service animals in their plans for evacuating residents facing disasters. As a result, Disaster Animal Response Teams (DART) began to form nationwide. DART volunteers responded to the deadly tornado that struck near Oklahoma City in May and to the flooding in Colorado in September.
There are about 40 DARTs in Tennessee, organized at the county level. The Sullivan County DART was formed in November 2012 and so far hasn’t been called to action, but it has about 30 trained volunteers ready to respond to a natural or manmade disaster, including disease outbreaks.
“This isn’t search and rescue. That’s not what we do. We evacuate them after they’ve been saved. It’s caring after the fact,” said DART Public Information Officer Johnnie Hennessee.
As first responders in an emergency, DART is responsible for implementing a plan of animal housing and care services.
The Tennessee Department of Agriculture offers DART training statewide to qualify individuals to assist in emergency or disaster situations. DART members can be qualified on two levels — either that of a registered volunteer or that of a credentialed responder. DART training is open to veterinarians, veterinary technicians, extension personnel, animal control officers, animal owners, livestock producers, animal interest group members, and anyone with experience or an interest in assisting in the care of animals during an emergency. Volunteers must be 18 or older. The training is free.
DART is an asset of the Sullivan County Emergency Management Agency, and would be deployed under the Tennessee Department of Health’s Medical Reserve Corps (MRC). In Sullivan County, the MRC is under the Sullivan County Regional Health Department.
Registered volunteers, Hennessee said, can only respond to an emergency in their county; credentialed responders (who undergo more extensive training) can respond to an event anywhere in Tennessee .
“Any domestic animal we take them, house them, feed them and keep them nice and safe and warm and loved until their owners can get them,” said David King, DART’s incident commander. “We will use one or both [animal] shelters in Kingsport and Blountville as the primary location. We’ll use barns for livestock and horses, vets’ offices if needed. We might use foster families if needed for long-term.”
Only Sullivan and Washington counties in Northeast Tennessee have DARTs. The next closest DART is in Knox County. The western end of the state, however, has a DART in almost every county, likely because of the greater probability of disasters on the western side of the state due to the New Madrid Seismic Zone (also called the New Madrid Fault Line) and the proximity of the Mississippi River.
Although DART has 30 volunteers ready to respond, more are needed, including those to assist in shelters once the animals have been rescued. The organization also needs leashes, crates and cages, halters and blankets. Monetary donations are welcome.
For more information, email sullivancountyDART@gmail.com.