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When the Rain Kept Falling

After assisting in animal relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Floyd, an HSUS staff member reflects on what was lost—and what lessons can be gained.

After assisting in animal relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Floyd, an HSUS staff member reflects on what was lost—and what lessons can be gained.

I wish I could have done more. I wish I could have washed the contaminated sewage grime off each and every one of the animals plucked from the floodwaters. But it was hard enough just to find the space to give them refuge from the unforgiving rain. It was all we could do just to guarantee their survival during that week of the North Carolina floods in September.

As an employee of The HSUS, I knew in theory the consequences of facing a disaster without a plan in place. I quickly discovered, however, that it is one thing to read about the ravages of a hurricane, and another thing altogether to witness the destruction firsthand.

I will never know what went through the minds of those animals. One little puppy floated on a piece of wood after his house was caught in a flash flood and his owners were killed. An emu who tried to run became so utterly exhausted that she collapsed and without so much as a peck, allowed rescuers to pick her up. Two pigs stood for more than a week atop a pointed roof, with their heads just above the water. They could not sit, turn around, eat, drink—nothing. They stood until they were so sunburned that their ears turned crispy, until rescuers pulled them into a boat. Their pure determination to live astounded me.

Those animals who came into our emergency shelter in Tarboro were terrified. You could see the trauma in their faces. They had felt the pains of thirst and hunger for longer than I could imagine. I held the leash of one dog as she desperately pulled me to a bowl of water, lapping at it with an intensity that I had never seen before. I desperately wanted to bathe the animals who came to us, but our only source of water came from a contaminated well, and it was yellow and cold.

Before I witnessed it myself, I could not have imagined the massive destruction. An entire town takes on an aura of despair. In North Carolina, 62 counties were declared federal disaster areas due to the wrath of Hurricane Floyd. Some people will never be allowed to return home; many communities are now being torn down because the floodwaters damaged them beyond repair.

Many people held onto the last thread of their lives: their pets. One woman came to our shelter every few hours searching for her dog. She would stay a while and lend a hand in hopes of seeing rescuers carrying her four-legged baby from the waters. Her dog was all she had left. She had lost her car, her house, and everything in it.

A thousand different emotions go through your head when you're working in a situation like that. But if anything kept me sane during that week, it was the dedication of the volunteers who returned day after day to help make these rescued creatures more comfortable. These volunteers worked outdoors in heavy downpours, sacrificing their own comfort for that of their charges. They did so many other amazing things, and many animals are safe and warm because of their efforts. They brought me hope, inspiration, and even laughter during the most difficult hours.

Still, I can only imagine what the animals must have been through. The thoughts are not comforting. Millions of lives were lost—estimates as high as 10 million turkeys and chickens. Over 500,000 swine. Even though the exact figures will never be known, the estimates are staggering. And we can only guess how many cats, dogs, and other companion animals were left by their owners to meet a cruel fate. If there is one thing I learned from my experiences in North Carolina, it is that we need to work harder to educate our communities about pets and disaster, to let pet owners know that leaving animals behind is not an option. More animal-friendly disaster relief centers need to be created, and more pet owners need to be alerted to their existence. Shelters need to ensure they have a disaster plan in place. The HSUS offers numerous materials and training opportunities to assist shelters in creating a disaster plan. A disaster can happen anywhere at any time, and adequate preparation is absolutely critical in saving lives.

I will never again hear the word "hurricane" without envisioning the devastation, without feeling the hopelessness. It changed me in a way that I have yet to understand, and every night, it makes me hug my own dogs a little longer.

Betsy McFarland works in The HSUS's Companion Animals section and volunteers at the Frederick County Humane Society in Frederick, Maryland.

 

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