How the ASPCA’s Response to a Devastating Tornado Helped Shape Our Disaster Response Today

May 4, 2021

Tim Rickey and a rescued dog

This May marks the 10-year-anniversary of a devastating tornado that swept through Joplin, Missouri. The ASPCA deployed to assist the Joplin Humane Society with emergency animal sheltering, reuniting pets with their families, and adoption efforts, as the city and its animals worked to move forward in the aftermath of the tornado’s destruction. Join us for an interview with Tim Rickey, ASPCA Vice President of National Field Response, as he recounts the ASPCA’s response to this natural disaster in his hometown of Joplin, explains how the ASPCA’s disaster response has evolved over the past 10 years, and provides pet parents with emergency preparedness tips.  

aftermath of the tornado

Q: Describe the experience of leading response efforts that included sheltering more than 1,300 animals over a month-long period, reuniting more than 500 pets with their families, and finding loving homes for more than 700 others, all in your hometown of Joplin, MO.

A: I continue to view the opportunity to lead the Joplin tornado response as one of the greatest professional honors of my career. To have been in a position to bring the tremendous resources of the ASPCA and our partners back to my hometown where I had gained so much experience and knowledge felt like bringing my career to full circle. 

ASPCA lost pet sign

Q: When you think back to that response, what stands out in your memory?

A: What stands out to me from the Joplin response is the overwhelming community support for the animals impacted by the horrific tornado. This community was devastated but the residents rallied around the emergency shelter operation, helped spread the word that so many unclaimed pets were at our location, passed out flyers, and spoke about our efforts at their churches. When the time came to find unclaimed pets homes, they showed up in overwhelming numbers to the adoption event.  

a girl with her rescued dog and an aspca responder

Q: Is there one lesson you learned from the Joplin tornado response that you still apply to your work today?

A: The Joplin tornado response taught us so many lessons that continue to improve our work. One of the first things that we noticed as an obstacle was how few animals coming into the emergency shelter had microchips. The ability to identify a pet’s family during disaster events is so critical to reunification and the ASPCA continues to encourage pet parents to microchip their pets. The ASPCA has also continued to prioritize reunification from the beginning of a response, recognizing the goal is not only to rescue and safely care for displaced pets but to get them back with their families as quickly as possible. We have established dedicated hotlines and other strategies to employ during disasters to connect families with their displaced pets, and have also incorporated pet food and supply distribution efforts to help remove barriers to families retaining pets in the aftermath of disasters. 

a rescued cat held by an aspca responder

Q: Over the past 10 years, how has the ASPCA's disaster response efforts evolved? 

A: Since the Joplin response the ASPCA has continued to evolve our disaster work in a number of ways to improve our ability to respond to an increasing number of major events. Our emergency sheltering, medical, evacuation, and search and rescue teams have continued to refine processes to ensure the highest quality of care for the animals. This includes equipping our teams with the necessary equipment and supplies to respond quickly and effectively to each unique disaster situation. 

Our emergency shelter model has evolved to incorporate enrichment and socialization to ensure the mental wellbeing of the animals is prioritized. Medical professionals are also continuously monitoring the animals to ensure their medical needs are addressed. Our relocation team works with local agencies to help evacuate pets out of harm’s way prior to a disaster when possible, or as quickly following the event as possible. This ensures that the local resources are available to help more displaced pets. The ASPCA has partnered with high level technical rescue teams across the nation to deploy highly skilled technical rescue experts to go into disaster environments and do the lifesaving work of moving pets out of harm’s way in the most safe and humane manner. 

a couple reunited with their dog

Q: What has the COVID-19 pandemic taught us about disaster response, and how has the team adapted?

A: 2020 was a challenging year as the number of natural disasters was significant and our ability to safely deploy was limited due to COVID-19. The ASPCA focused on developing Field Deployment Safety Protocols to help our team deploy safely. We also focused on regional responses to reduce travel risk and shifted to grant support to help local agencies be more self-sufficient and focus on capacity building. These were emergency measures that were implemented out of necessity, but they will guide our strategy for years to come as we focus more on building local capacity to respond effectively to disasters. 

a woman reunited with her dog

Q: How can pet parents best prepare for potential disasters? 

A: Emergencies come in many forms, and they may require anything from a brief absence from your home to permanent evacuation. Each type of disaster requires different measures to keep your pets safe, so the best thing you can do for yourself and your pets is to be prepared. See all our disaster preparedness tips, and use our handy checklist to keep your plans organized.