AMONGST THE most haunting images of Hurricane Katrina last year were surely those of pets abandoned in flooded New Orleans by owners who were told by rescuers that they could not leave with their animals.
Many residents died because they insisted on staying with their pets rather than leaving them to starve or drown. But the city's animal-lovers should not face the same heart-wrenching decision if another devastating storm strikes.
Under a new evacuation strategy unveiled last week by the mayor, Ray Nagin, people will be allowed to take their pets on evacuation buses and trains as long as they are caged.
The same safeguards are expected to be provided across the country under legislation introduced with bipartisan support in the Senate last month.
The draft bill would require local authorities to include evacuation procedures for household pets and service animals such as guard dogs in their emergency preparation plans.
"We learnt many important lessons from hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma," said Ted Stevens, a Republican senator who introduced the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act with Democrat senator Frank Lautenberg.
"One of these lessons was that we must put procedures in place to evacuate not only residents in areas impacted by a natural disaster, but also pets and service animals."
Mr Lautenberg added: "Losing a home in a disaster is traumatic, but losing a beloved family pet makes it even more devastating. We saw many people in New Orleans who refused to leave without their pets, putting themselves in more danger. If there had been a plan to evacuate people with their pets, we might have saved some human lives as well as many animals."
The New Orleans evacuation plan also eliminates the use of the Superdome and Convention Centre as shelters. These were scenes of misery after Katrina as tens of thousands of residents languished in sordid conditions, with many people, including young women and tourists in fear of their lives due to large gangs of thieves and would-be rapists and murderers. The priority instead will be better use of buses and trains to evacuate people.
The flooding after Katrina killed at least 1,300 people on the Gulf Coast. An official with the Humane Society of Louisiana estimated that hundreds of thousands of animals also died in the flooding.
Meanwhile, allegations have emerged accusing the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) of abusing emergency funds and supplies sent to New Orleans to help the stranded animals. The office of the Attorney General of Louisiana has launched an official investigation into the allegation and charges against HSUS may follow.