Texas A&M: Rising to the Challenge

By Vet-Advantage
December, 2017
Texas A&M’s Veterinary Emergency Team provided care and assistance following Hurricane Harvey

Floods, wildfires, even plant explosions – Texas A&M’s Veterinary Emergency Team has been deployed for a myriad of reasons since its development. But Hurricane Harvey proved the toughest test to date, stretching the emergency responders in new ways logistically, and medically.

The Texas A&M Veterinary Emergency Team is the only state-level veterinary medical care provider in the State of Texas Emergency Response Plan. The team is the nation’s largest in terms of daily patient capacity and the most sophisticated in terms of the depth and breadth of veterinary medical care provided in a disaster situation. Vet-Advantage spoke with members of the Texas A&M’s Veterinary Emergency Team regarding in the weeks following Hurricane Harvey.

Vet-Advantage December Companion 2017 - Texas A&M: Rising to the ChallengeVet-Advantage: What disaster relief/emergency response events has Texas A&M’s Veterinary Emergency Team been a part of in the past? How did those compare to the scope of Hurricane Harvey?

A: The very first large deployment the Veterinary Emergency Team experienced was the Bastrop Complex Wildfires of 2011. After that, the team deployed to the West, Texas, Fertilizer Plant explosion in 2013, the Blanco River flood in 2015, and the Brazos River flood in 2016. Each of these deployments was very different and presented unique challenges to the team.

The deployment to Bastrop lasted nearly 14 days, and animals of all species (companion animals and livestock) treated by the VET typically experienced burn injuries and smoke inhalation-related complications. For many of the team, while this was not the first time to see these types of injuries, it was the first time to see them in such numbers. By the end of the deployment, the team treated and triaged close to 300 animals.

The fertilizer plant explosion, while smaller in scale and duration (only 3.5 days), was very different in that the team was located inside the community and surrounded by double barricades on every road in and out because of the ongoing investigation of the explosion as a criminal/possible terrorist act. Most of the animals seen there were companion animals, with a few livestock, and the injuries typically included inflamed ear drums from the blast, as well as a very few skin reactions to the ammonium nitrate that entered the air.

The Blanco River flood and the Brazos River flood lasted 13 days and 14 days, respectively. The Blanco River flood was primarily search-and-rescue canine team support. While in both Wimberley, Texas, and San Marcos, Texas, the team had the opportunity to provide care and support to some companion animals and a small number of livestock. The Brazos River flood was much larger. The team initially deployed to Fort Bend County, the first area impacted by the flooding river. While there, both companion animals and livestock were assessed, triaged, and treated. Shortly into the deployment, the team was relocated to Brazoria County, where, in addition to search-and-rescue canine team support, the VET provided veterinary care to approximately 800 companion animals and livestock located at the emergency shelter set up at the fairgrounds and provided veterinary treatment and intervention to close to 100 additional animals (primarily livestock) in the field.

What made the Hurricane Harvey deployment so different was the double impact on coastal communities and the duration of adverse weather effects experienced during the approximate 20-21 day deployment. Coastal communities in and around Aransas County were hit the hardest, but other coastal communities suffered the impacts of Harvey as the storm rolled along the Texas coast. The subsequent torrential rainfall inland led to flooding in some of the same coastal communities that had just experienced the incoming effects of the hurricane from the Gulf. Our team was able to provide veterinary support and treatment to companion animals and livestock from four different bases of operation located along the Texas coast (Rockport, in Aransas County; Fort Bend County and Brazoria County; FEMA support in Katy, Texas; and Jefferson/Chambers/Orange counties, in East Texas.) The sheer numbers of animals alone, as well as the size of the area needed to cover directly, challenged the team, spreading it across hundreds of miles and caring for thousands of animals of all species.

While the goal of each of these deployments was the same – caring for animals impacted by the disaster and providing veterinary support for search-and-rescue canine teams – the differences in terrain, the requested support needed, the duration of the deployment, and the different types of injuries treated represented the main differences between all of them. By far, the Hurricane Harvey experience put the most pressure on our team logistically and medically, but in true Aggie fashion, we rose to the challenge and lived out the Texas A&M value of selfless service.

Of course, we could not be successful on any of these deployments or those in the future without the tremendous partnerships we have established. The Texas A&M Forest Service, Texas Task Forces 1 & 2, Texas A&M AgriLife, the Texas Animal Health Commission, our sheltering partners, the Texas Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps, and the veterinary private practice community have all played a significant role in our success. Many private practitioners are unable to practice due to damage to their own clinics but have always been willing to support our efforts until they are ready to begin taking care of their neighbors. In Hurricane Harvey, we saw this type of partnership expanded with the very first activation of the Texas Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps (VMRC) – private practitioners with specific training that are able to participate in the VET’s response efforts when additional personnel are needed to support our mission. Along with the VMRC, we received assistance from practitioners from the Texas Veterinary Medical Association and the Texas Equine Veterinary Association.

Vet-Advantage: What were the immediate needs and ways the Veterinary Emergency Team was deployed following Hurricane Harvey?

A: The immediate need experienced by the impacted communities was to determine the magnitude of the animal issues they faced. Sheltering operations needed to be established, the food/water/access resources needed by livestock stranded in the waters had to be assessed, and the level of available veterinary care already in the area needed to be determined. When we deploy to a community at the request of a county (through a State of Texas Asset Request), we provide the veterinary support for the search-and-rescue dogs, but then we also work with the communities to see where they need our expertise plugged into the response effort. This has included providing veterinary rounds to care for animals in shelters, partnering with Texas A&M AgriLife and the Texas Animal Health Commission to provide veterinary support to animals stranded in the field, and supporting local practitioners until they are ready to resume practice.

Our team is fortunate to have the largest capacity in the nation to support our efforts. This means we arrive able to sustain ourselves for up to a week. We provide our veterinary supplies to include pharmaceuticals, blankets, towels, crates, and animal nutrition support. We are also able to provide for the basic needs of our team members. However, we do not operate in a vacuum. The generosity of vendors, donors, and the residents in the communities we serve have helped to support our team through monetary donations so we can purchase items needed to execute our mission, through supply donations so we are able to extend the care we provide to so many more animals than we could alone, and the support and encouragement we receive from those whom we deployed to serve. 

Vet-Advantage: What were some of the biggest challenges?

A: The biggest challenge our team faces always includes access to locations. This includes determining a place to establish our base of operations, as well as access to locations where there are animals in need that were not evacuated to a shelter. We are fortunate to work with deployment partners and trained specialists who ensure we have an appropriate area to work in, as well as safe access to the locations we need to reach to provide veterinary support to animals.

Transportation is another challenge. While we are the largest, best-equipped veterinary emergency team in the nation, transporting all of our team members and determining that accessible and operational location for our base is something that often has to be done in advance. Again, we are fortunate to have a close working relationship with the counties we have served and the State of Texas to help us identify places that can best meet our needs.

The need for supplies and other support will always be a part of deployment. Enough cannot be said about the support we receive from our industry partners, our practice partners, our response partners, private donors, and the community residents we serve. Without them, we would not be as successful in doing what we do to ensure the animals impacted by disaster have the best chance possible to be reunited with their owners.

Vet-Advantage: What are the current animal health-related needs of the areas impacted by Hurricane Harvey?

A: Just like in the flooding events of 2015 and 2016, Hurricane Harvey will have a lasting impact on the animals in its path. Animal owners will still have to continue watching for signs of skin damage to animals that were stranded in water for long periods of time before being able to move to dry land. The skin damage, called cellulitis, can lead to the sloughing off of skin, sometimes very deep, creating exposure to contaminants and infectious agents as the skin barrier is compromised. In addition, some animals may suffer from respiratory illness or other infections (such as gastrointestinal) from inhaling and ingesting floodwater. If they are not already showing symptoms, it continues to be important to watch animals and get them veterinary care as soon as possible if they begin to seem ill.

Vet-Advantage December Companion 2017- Texas A&M: Rising to the Challenge, The missions of the Veterinary Emergency TeamAlso, a lasting impact is the separation from owners. For owners of livestock, the loss of animals to death and separation can make a negative impact financially, but also emotionally. Residents who have been separated from companion animals may have difficulty reuniting with their pets because owners have no place to bring them home to or may be unable to find them after being separated in the storm. Local shelters are assisting owners of both livestock and companion animals to reunite with their pets.

At the end of the day, deploying to an impacted community, helping to serve the residents and their animals on what is possibly the worst day they have experienced is humbling and truly an honor for our team. Our animals provide a sense of continuity in the face of devastation, and our team is privileged to play a part in providing hope in the face of disaster.  

Banfield Foundation funds fully equipped veterinary medical unit for Texas A&M VET

Banfield Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and Texas A&M University’s Veterinary Emergency Team (VET) unveiled the university›s first custom, fully equipped veterinary medical unit, according to a release. The 25-foot truck, which can be deployed anywhere in the U.S., was fully funded by a grant from the Banfield Foundation and will expand the Texas A&M VET’s medical-response capability in times of disaster.

The fully equipped veterinary medical unit – the latest addition to the team’s fleet of response vehicles – will enable even more expansive and efficient rescue and treatment of pets during disasters. 

“As we again experienced with the most recent tragedies across the U.S., people and their pets face emergent rescue and recovery needs during and after disasters. The new veterinary medical unit will bolster veterinary care and capabilities during those critical times,” said Dr. George Melillo, Banfield Foundation board member and Vice President of Veterinary Quality at Banfield Pet Hospital. “We have witnessed the compassion and effective care capabilities from Texas A&M’s VET, and we are honored to have a part in helping the team minimize the devastating consequences of disasters and be even more prepared to care for animals in urgent need.”

Custom designed by the Texas A&M VET based on its unique needs and insights from prior deployments, the new veterinary medical unit
features a durable metal exterior, generator and climate-controlled tents. It is also equipped with a veterinary-grade wet table, gas anesthesia and storage for enough medical and pharmaceutical inventory to last up to 48 hours of disaster response operations. Now operational, the new unit will enable Texas A&M’s VET to treat and stabilize injured pets – including large animals such as horses and cattle – and perform emergency surgeries.

When not deployed during a disaster, the veterinary medical unit will be based at Texas A&M’s Disaster City®, where veterinary students and Texas Task Force, a FEMA urban search-and-rescue unit, will use it in bimonthly exercises to train for emergency situations. Fourth-year veterinary students will also spend two weeks of clinical rotation with the medical unit.

“Words can’t describe the meaning of such a donation. Marking a huge step forward, the Banfield Foundation provided us a platform that’s worthy of the people and animals we are responding to,” said Dr. Wesley Bissett, founder and director of Texas A&M University’s Veterinary Emergency Team. “Historically, animals were ignored during disasters. In their own right, they deserve our help. Coupled with the impact that saving an animal has on a pet owner who may have lost everything, that’s indescribable. Banfield Foundation’s support of these efforts means an incredible amount to every team member. As the largest and most sophisticated veterinary medical emergency response team in the country, this addition keeps Texas A&M and our College of Veterinary Medicine at the forefront of disaster response – in today’s age, it takes this sort of partnership to pull these things off,” Bissett said.

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