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Storm preparation & recovery

(Excerpted from the Neighborhood Cats TNR Handbook:) 

Feral and stray cats are especially vulnerable when severe storms like hurricanes or blizzards strike.  High winds, torrential rains, floods or other hazardous conditions can put your cats’ lives at risk.  To reduce the dangers, you’ll need to prepare beforehand and then also take action immediately after the storm has passed.

Before the storm

Well before any bad weather arrives, the first step is to catalogue your cats.  Compile a list, including descriptions and photos, even if you’re already very familiar with the colony.  After the storm, this could help determine if any cats are missing and, if there are, assist in preparing alerts or flyers to help find them.

At the colony site, what can be most important is protecting the cats’ shelter so they can safely ride out the storm.   If the shelters and feeding station are located in a low-lying area prone to flooding, relocate them to higher ground within the cats’ territory, if at all possible.  Also raise both shelters and feeding stations off the ground, whether you relocate them or not.  Wooden shipping pallets are ideal for this purpose.  Cinder blocks will work as well.  Raise them high enough to prevent ground water or snow from reaching up to the doorways.

If the cats are sheltered and fed inside a permanent structure, like a shed or garage, make sure there are secure, elevated places inside the structure where they can climb and perch, like shelves or heavy furniture.  In case of extreme flooding inside the structure or any other emergency condition that might develop, leave the cats a way to get outside besides their normal ground-level entryway, like a slightly open window.

High winds present another potential hazard.  Tie shelters and feeding stations to permanent structures, like a fence, to anchor them or else wedge them tightly into a secure place.  Feral cat shelters are often light and need to be weighed down.  But in high winds, heavy objects can be dislodged and create a danger, so be careful about placing anything on top of the shelters.  Tying the shelters and feeding stations down is safer.  Likewise, check the general area for loose objects which could become airborne and remove them.

To keep rain or snow from driving in, position shelters so their doorways are facing a wall or similar solid structure and not open space.  One idea, if not already implemented, is to face the entrances of two shelters towards one another, no more than a foot apart.  Flaps over the doorways, if the cats are already used to them, will also keep precipitation out (see “Doorway flaps” in Chapter 6).

In case you’re unable to return to the colony site right away, put out an extra supply of dry food – enough to last a few days - before the storm arrives and leave a plentiful supply of water.  Gravity feeders and automatic waterers are perfect for ensuring an adequate supply of food and water (see “Automatic feeders and waterers” in Chapter 5).  Be sure the feeding station is protected in the same manner as the shelters – raised off the ground with the doorway shielded and located in close proximity to the shelters.  Also, fill plastic containers or bowls with dry food and put them inside the shelters, placing them in the back inner corners as far as possible from the door.  This will make the food accessible to the cats during the storm.  However, do not put any water inside the shelter – it would likely spill and create a health risk for the cats by getting them wet or making the interior of the shelter damp.

The aftermath

When you arrive at the colony site after a severe weather event, the first thing to take care of is yourself.  Strong winds and heavy snow or rain can cause overhanging branches to weaken and fall for several days after the storm.  Other debris overhead can also pose a danger.  Downed power lines can turn puddles into electrical hazards.  So be aware and cautious as you move about.

Be on the lookout for broken glass, nails or other sharp objects and remove them promptly.  Any broken lumber should also be promptly removed.  Scratches from pieces of treated lumber will become infected rapidly.  Any wet items inside the cats’ shelters should be discarded or cleaned.  That includes bedding, straw or newspaper. When moist, these items offer no protection and will build up bacteria which could be harmful to the cats.  Thoroughly bleach shelters, feeding stations and dishes if they were exposed to flood waters, which may contain toxins from sewage or other sources of contamination.  For the same reason, after a flood, remove as much standing water from the colony site as possible and provide clean water to drink, putting out extra water bowls.

If any cats are missing, be aware they may be close by, but too frightened to return to the site.  Also look high – cats may have climbed to escape flood waters and may still be up in trees or on rooftops. You can coax missing cats back by re-establishing a normal environment and regular feeding routine.  Give them their favorite foods to comfort them, like tuna or grilled chicken, something tempting to make them feel better and lure frightened cats back.  Add treats to their meals, continuing for several days after all the cats are accounted for.  If possible, stop by twice a day to offer reassurance and keep calling for any missing cats.  Most will come back within a week, but some stragglers may take a few weeks to return.

Check the cats for any injuries.  Contaminated flood waters can infect wounds so if injuries are seen, trap and seek veterinary care immediately.  The stress of the events can cause an outbreak of upper respiratory infections.  To ward off illness, add extra Vitamin C to the cats’ food (see “Vitamin C to the Rescue” in Chapter 5.)  If you do see evidence of upper respiratory infections, consult a veterinarian about getting antibiotics into their food before their conditions worsen.   Remember, getting the colony's routine back to normal as soon as possible is the best way to combat stress.

If your colony is located in an area that is closed off because of storm damage, contact your local police precinct and speak to the officer in charge of Community Affairs.  Explain why you need to gain access and find out what you need to do to get permission to go in.

For more information on disaster preparedness for you and the animals in your care, see the Disaster Preparedness page at The Humane Society of the United States.