Rescue groups mobilized to save dogs, cats and other animals during one of the most devastating hurricane seasons on record.

Harvey, Irma and Maria made this past autumn one of the most destructive hurricane seasons on record. Disastrous winds and flooding resulted in mass evacuations, many injuries and fatalities, and billions of dollars in damage. This unprecedented series of storms has impacted the lives of millions of people — and their animal companions.

Hurricane Harvey overwhelmed Houston, Galveston and other parts of Texas in late August, prompting a whirlwind of preparation among human and animal welfare organizations everywhere. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), American Humane, Best Friends, RedRover and other animal organizations deployed teams to affected regions to conduct search and rescue missions, provide veterinary care, transport animals to safety, and supply families with provisions to see their pets through the disaster.

RedRover Responders team in Dallas.

“RedRover responders were asked by the SPCA of Texas to help in Dallas with the temporary sheltering of animals displaced by Hurricane Harvey,” says Beth Gammie, Director of Field Services. In one week, they cared for 123 dogs and 24 cats, organizing supplies and providing much-needed love and comfort to frightened animals.

While RedRover continued dedicating their time and resources to Harvey victims, other organizations were forced to divide and conquer when Hurricane Irma hit Florida a week later. For example, while American Humane had a rescue team working in southeast Texas, they also deployed a second team to Florida to transport animals with one of three rescue vehicles equipped to provide care, shelter and food. “Third and fourth teams were sent to take over the operations of two ‘mega-shelters’ in Louisiana, housing some 1,000 animals – many ‘refugees’ from the storm in Texas,” says Dr. Robin Ganzert, president and CEO.

The HSUS Animal Rescue Team was also on the ground in Florida. They transported dogs and cats from Tampa Bay, Broward County and Palm Beach in advance of the storm, and organized flights of animals from Clay, Alachua and Collier counties with their partners, Wings of Rescue and GreaterGood.org.

Meanwhile, in partnership with Houston PetSet and Harris County Public Health Animal Shelter, Best Friends Animal Society opened the Pet Reunion Pavilion (PRP) at NRG Arena in Houston. “We provided 24-hour care to pets impacted by the storm, and worked around the clock to get information about the center into communities,” says Greta Palmer, Senior Director of Marketing and Communication. The PRP served as a temporary housing center for nearly 600 dogs and cats, and invited people to come and reclaim their pets. At the same time, a second Best Friends team spearheaded a major evacuation for dogs and cats in Florida shelters.

Then, in late September, Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico. In the wake of this horrendous storm, organizations including the HSUS moved in as soon as they were able in order to start airlifting hundreds of the island’s stray animals to the US mainland, where they were cared for, and will be rehabilitated and adopted out.

On October 4, Red Rover was on the ground in Madison, New Jersey, to help St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center and HSUS provide daily care and comfort for adoptable animals evacuated out of Puerto Rico. “Our hearts go out to the people and animals in Puerto Rico who have been hit hard back- to-back by both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria,” says Beth. “RedRover Responders are committed to providing care and comfort in this time of crisis before these animals find new homes.”

Animal rescue teams continued to labor for months in hurricane-ravaged regions, often in perilous conditions. Overcoming challenges ranging from limited supplies to outbreaks of canine distemper, they did what they could to keep animals safe and healthy until they could be returned to their guardians or taken to shelters. According to Beth, reuniting families with their pets makes all the effort worthwhile. “In the midst of losing so much, I’ve seen owners in tears just to see their dogs wagging their tails.”

Team members from the HSUS Animal Rescue Team (ART) successfully rescued two sibling kittens in Beaumont Texas. Severe flooding, due to Hurricane Harvey forced a sudden mandatory evacuation of the area. The boats are part of an effort to rescue animals which have become stranded beyond conventional reach within the floods.
(Anthony Rathbun/Humane Society Of The United States via AP Images)

Animal rescue procedures are improving  

Despite the devastation caused by these hurricanes, most animal rescue organizations agree there has been a great deal of improvement in rescue procedures.

“There is a world of difference between what occurred during Hurricane Katrina and what happens now in terms of preparation, evacuation, rescue, and temporary sheltering,” says Beth. “The PETS Act has helped immensely – and has saved animals and human lives.” Established in 2006, the PETS Act mandates that state and local government agencies take household pets and service animals into consideration in their disaster planning process, in order to be eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency funding.

“More communities are realizing the tremendous bond between family members and their pets, along with the need to incorporate animals into their overall disaster preparedness and response plans,” adds Wanda Merling, Deputy Director of Operations for the HSUS Animal Rescue Team.

The work continues

There is no “calm after the storm” for animal rescue organizations. As of this writing, many are still hard at work.

  • The HSUS has teamed up with Emancipet, a non-profit veterinary clinic in Houston’s East End, offering free services to owned animals affected by Hurricane Harvey through the end of 2017.
  • RedRover is offering regular Responder Trainings in cities across North America to grow their team of volunteers.
  • American Humane continues its mission to help agencies and pet parents prepare for natural disasters.
  • Best Friends offers online resources for hurricane victims, including a page dedicated to helping families reunite with pets displaced by the storms. They’re also encouraging people to foster or adopt an animal to relieve overburdened shelters.
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