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In 1992, Hurricane Andrew struck Florida just south of Miami. Although around 1.2 million residents evacuated in the face of the Category 5 storm, some stayed behind with their pets, knowing evacuation shelters wouldn’t accept them. Others returned home to find pets missing or crushed under the rubble.
“We’ll never know how many animals died,” says HSUS Southern regional director Laura Bevan, including pets, wildlife, cows and horses, many of whom died of dehydration due to lack of potable water. A native Floridian, Bevan was one of a crew of volunteers who set up a makeshift animal shelter—army tents in a field—to care for around 600 stray animals after the storm. With no Facebook and no cell phones at the time, people found their way to the field by word-of-mouth. “As far as I’ve ever been able to find out,” she says, “that was the first emergency animal shelter set up after a disaster. It just wasn’t done.”
Since 1992, however, the state has implemented stricter building codes and new laws that have protected people and animals during subsequent storms Opal, Charley, Ivan, Jeanne, Dennis, Katrina, Wilma and Irma. The State Department of Agriculture performs a yearly check of counties’ emergency plans, which must include animals, and sends crates and supplies to evacuation shelters ahead of storms.
“Every time there’s a storm, we tweak [the plan] and make it better,” says Bevan. During Hurricane Irma in 2017, she helped move homeless animals from Florida shelters to HSUS emergency placement partners, making space for pets whose owners were evacuated. Meanwhile, Bevan’s many years of bringing disaster response training to animal groups around the state paid off as volunteers and staffers prepared to put what they’d learned into practice.
The HSUS flew over flooded areas of the state, relaying information about stranded animals to the state agricultural response team. The South Florida Wildlife Center, an HSUS affiliate, evacuated more than 400 wild animals in advance of the storm and took in more than 300 injured wildlife in the days immediately after Irma; a University of Florida veterinary team saved a horse on the verge of drowning; other groups distributed hay bales provided by The HSUS to horses and cows. “There were animals all over the state, more than The HSUS could handle as an individual team,” Bevan says. “If we had to distribute every hay bale, we’d still be doing it. We helped animals that we didn’t even know about.”
Thousands of animals were saved by the advance planning and other changes made in Andrew’s wake. “People came from all over the state, and they sat in evacuation traffic for 18 hours, but they had what was important to them,” says Bevan, recalling people “who had five or six animals that they had packed into their car like Noah’s Ark,” to bring them to one of 100 evacuation shelters that accepted pets. “I was standing in a field in Miami 25 years ago with army tents that collapsed every time the rain came. For humans and animals alike, it’s a world of difference.”
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