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Weathering the storms, part I

Facing a string of hurricanes, animal welfare groups leap into action

From Animal Sheltering magazine Spring 2018

Staff and volunteers from The HSUS and other groups prepare to whisk homeless cats and dogs out of Hurricane Irma’s path in Florida and deliver them to HSUS emergency placement partners.Rescue partners around the country teamed up to safely transport pets out of harm’s way. York arrived from Texas still toting his favorite toy; staff at Mohawk Hudson Humane Society made sure it stayed with him.

For many, life has returned to normal, but for others, the impact of the terrible storms that struck late last summer will be felt for years to come.

Every new disaster brings something unexpected. Even those who weathered Hurricane Katrina (and thought nothing could surprise them after that storm and the response that followed) still could not have imagined a situation like Puerto Rico’s, where the power would remain off for months and months, compounding the devastating impact on people and animals.

The sheltering and rescue field stepped up bravely to help on countless fronts in 2017; we’re highlighting just a small component of that response here.

As we take stock, we remember: Disaster preparedness is one of those things that always seems like it can wait until another time, another day—until suddenly, that day is upon you, and everything you have done (or haven’t done) comes starkly into focus.

We’d love to hear what you experienced and what you learned from the hurricanes and other disasters of 2017. Are there subjects you think Animal Sheltering should cover before the next disaster hits? Training that would be useful for people in our field? Other systems that the animal welfare field should be examining and trying to put in place? Talk to us at And thank you for all the work you did—and continue to do—for animals and people in need of help.

A wing and a prayer, and many helping hands

Every day animal shelters work to save lives, and every day there’s a huge amount of work to be done for their furry guests. Taking in more animals exponentially increases that work, yet when disaster struck—and kept striking—during last year’s hurricane season, hundreds of shelters and agencies stepped up. Organizations across the country took in animals from organizations in hard-hit regions so that local shelters could, in turn, provide space for pets impacted by the storms.

“The thing about our partners is they don’t shy away from a little extra work,” says Kim Alboum, who manages The HSUS Emergency Placement Partners program, a network of shelters and rescues that assist with the placement of animals from major cruelty cases and disaster situations. At least 70 partners assisted in the HSUS’s transport efforts alone, picking up planeloads of nervous animals at all hours of the night and then transferring them to their own facilities and slathering them with TLC.

Their work and can-do spirit was embodied by the team at Mohawk Hudson Humane Society. “We try to work with a sense of urgency,” says Todd Cramer, president and CEO of the shelter in Menands, New York. “… We don’t say, ‘No, we can’t,’ we say, ‘How can we?’”

The organization took in around 70 dogs in total, first from the Houston area in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and then from Florida when Irma threatened the state. Cramer was inspired by how his staff came together in the effort. “I went to my VP of operations and said … ‘How can we do this?’ And I watched them gather the team, and in less than an hour they had figured out how we were going to make the space to take them in,” Cramer says. “They were calling foster parents and volunteers to action, planning an adoption special, and they had it. They had it all nailed down.”

Many disaster-impacted animals were flown to their destinations by Wings of Rescue, which regularly provides air transport for animals from overcrowded, high-intake shelters to shelters in communities where the demand for pets is higher and cages aren’t as packed. Puerto Rico’s main airport in San Juan had barely reopened when volunteer pilots from Berry Aviation, funded by The HSUS, took to the air in hired cargo planes to evacuate homeless animals, just as they had from Texas after Harvey and from Florida after Irma—45 flights and more than 4,500 animals altogether.

The flights took off from Fort Lauderdale, carrying two and a half tons of pet food and supplies to the island and picking up loads of animals on arrival. The flights also delivered 170 tons of water, emergency foods, solar lights and other humanitarian supplies. Though it was hot and he was thirsty, Wings of Rescue CEO and president Ric Browde said he would not drink even one bottle of the water because the need in Puerto Rico was too great. “Everywhere, we’ve been met with a lot of joy and angst—the tragedy is just enormous,” he said. “You just figure if you don’t do it, who will?”

That was Cramer’s attitude as well. Of the 70 dogs the shelter took from Texas and Florida, more than 20 were pitty-types. “These dogs show the greatest need in times of disaster, and we’re going to be there for them. It’s important to show folks that a dog is a dog is a dog,” says Cramer.

One of those dogs was York, who became a sort of mascot for the effort. The dog came up from Houston, Cramer says, and when his crate came off the airplane on the conveyor belt, he had a stuffed teapot toy in his mouth and a note pinned to his collar: “Please make sure my toy stays with me.” Even amidst all the chaos, shelter staff made sure it did—and that it went home with him when he was adopted.

Read Going the distance for pets in Puerto Rico

Read The heart of Texas

Read Learning Andrew’s lessons in Florida

About the Author

M. Carrie Allan is the senior editorial director at The Humane Society of the United States, served as editor of Animal Sheltering magazine for nearly a decade, and has focused on telling the stories of the animal protection movement for even longer. She holds a master’s degree in English and writing and has won awards for her journalism, fiction and poetry, including recognition from the Dog Writer’s Association of American, the Cat Writer’s Association, the Association of Food Journalists, and the James Beard Foundation (where she was a finalist for the work she does in her side-gig, writing about booze and cocktails for the Washington Post). If you think there’s a connection between her longtime commitment to animal welfare work and her interest in a good drink . . . well, aren’t you the smart one?

About the Author

Karen E. Lange is a senior writer at the Humane Society of the United States.