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Three States, Eight Days, One Thousand Animals: Reflections on Hurricane Matthew, Part 1

When the deadly Category 4 storm made its way up the coast early last month, the ASPCA Field Investigations and Response Team was there to save animals’ lives. Dr. Dick Green, Senior Director, Disaster Response, shares his report from the field.

 

On any given day, the ASPCA’s Field Investigations and Response (FIR) Team is likely involved somewhere in the country. When Matthew was headed our way in early October, we were managing two large responses—one in Massachusetts and one in Ohio—so we knew that we were about to test our response capabilities. 

I had started tracking Matthew nearly a week before it tore through Haiti and Cuba, so we had time to get ready—something we don’t always have in the disaster business. Hurricanes can bring about a wide range of response efforts, from life-threatening winds to devastating floods, and those scenarios can require an army of well-trained individuals and a host of equipment and supplies. FIR is fortunate to have small caches of supplies, trucks and trailers strategically located throughout the country, so we often pre-stage equipment and responders for larger events where we want to reduce our response time.

The key to staging is to find a place that will be safe and provide a launching point that will get resources in as quickly as possible in multiple directions. With Matthew’s large projected path, Georgia or South Carolina looked to be ideal staging sites. On October 5, I contacted the Departments of Agriculture in both states; within minutes, I had written invitations to stage. Given that it looked like Florida would be hardest hit, I selected Waycross, GA, and started our vehicles rolling while I made a mad dash for the San Francisco airport.

We have a number of amazing partners in the Gulf states, including Louisiana. I contacted Dr. Renee Poirrier with the Louisiana State Animal Response Team to see if we could borrow their response trailer, which would shave some serious response time off the trip to Georgia. I am not exaggerating when I say that within two hours of my request, they had their vehicle on its way to the coast. With Dave Marcantel at the wheel, they rolled in at just about the same time I was landing in Savannah. 

Earlier that day we had received a request from Glynn County Animal Control, located in the county right next to our staging area, to aid their evacuation, rescue and sheltering efforts. And just as Dave was arriving—talk about great timing!—we received another request to evacuate 36 animals from the Humane Society of South Coastal Georgia. Dave was able to get their animals over to our emergency shelter in Waycross. From that point forward, it was non-stop for us.

Whenever we can, we try to move animals out of shelters in the potential impact areas—this is a process we refer to as relo. And I have to say, we have one of the best relo teams in the country—by the time I got settled into Georgia, our relo team had already moved nearly 150 animals from shelters along the Atlantic coast. And the requests kept coming.

A day before the storm was projected to hit Georgia, I received a request from Beaufort County Animal Control to evacuate 40 animals. Our team had already moved a good number of animals a couple of days prior, but as folks were evacuating the state, animal control was taking in more animals—and before they knew it, their shelter had filled up again. In addition, they had serious concerns over the ability of the shelter to survive a direct hit. 

Julie Holmes-Taylor, Director of Animal Control for Glynn County, agreed to join me in what turned out to be a marathon trip. We reached Beaufort just before midnight, packaged up about 40 dogs and cats and made a run for the designated state emergency shelter—a good three hours away.  We arrived just before 4 in the morning, off-loaded our animals to a sleepy shelter team and got back to Waycross at about 8:30—just in time for morning feeding of the critters.

Most of that day was spent identifying responders, getting our team settled in, checking in for the last time with partners and preparing our camp for the storm. Fortunately, we received very few requests for assistance that day. There was some movement of animals needed and some responders moved to fill gaps, but all in all, the shelters along the Florida coast fared reasonably well. 

Then it was our turn, as the storm barreled in late that evening. Even though we were a good 30 miles inland as the crow flies, our trailers were rocking and rolling, and the rain came in sheets. The next morning, however, we were met with sunny skies… and power.

Unfortunately, the coast of Georgia was not so lucky. We were hearing of significant damage, and it looked like it would be at least several days before Glynn County would be able to get back to their shelter…

 

Grab your tissues and stay tuned for Part 2, in which Dr. Green shares some heart-wrenching rescue stories and what turned out to be “one of the toughest navigation efforts” the FIR team has ever undertaken.

Dr. Dick Green is responsible for leading the efforts of the ASPCA Disaster Response department, which covers natural disasters. He oversees the ASPCA's internal disaster readiness program and develops partnerships with national and local agencies to enhance the organization’s disaster response capabilities. He established and chaired the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition in early 2006, following Hurricane Katrina. NARSC is comprised of 13 animal welfare groups, including the ASPCA, and is the first coalition in the nation that is dedicated to working with all levels of government and non-government agencies on major human-animal emergency issues.

 

Related Links

Webinar with Dr. Dick Green: “Animals In Disasters: Enhancing Response Capabilities” 
“Report from the Field: On Deployment in Louisiana” 
Download: 10-page Emergency Housing Guide