The Ultimate Adventure Companion
It is an island 18 miles long connected to the mainland by a single bridge. To the west lies the Manahawkin Bay, to the east the Atlantic. All told, no more than 800 meters of sand separates the two seas. It is a tenuous, laughable divide, and the waters have met before; perhaps, most notably, in the Great Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, which messily sliced the island into three pieces. Undoubtedly, that fact was on Governor Chris Christie’s mind when he ordered a mandatory evacuation of Long Beach Island, New Jersey, this past October. Superstorm Sandy was barreling her way.
Michelle Walsh heeded the governor’s orders and made her way to the mainland. She wasn’t really worried—Sandy, superstorm or not, was just another storm. See, when you live near the sea, you come to expect waves and evacuation orders, she says. With her 22-year-old daughter Brittany, she made her way across the Manahawkin Bay Bridge to mainland New Jersey. Three months later, she has yet to return home. And like so many others in the storm’s path, she unwillingly left someone behind: her two dogs.
Pets are the unnoticed, unmourned victims of nearly every natural disaster. By some counts, more than three million pets and livestock were killed by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Hurricane Katrina killed or left homeless roughly 600,000 animals across the South. Today, New Orleans is overrun by wild dogs—a sad legacy of the storm, and a direct consequence of pre-storm pet policies: A dearth of collocated shelters for people and their animals, a stressed local shelter infrastructure, and lack of coordination between law enforcement, pet owners, and animal welfare agencies.
Seven years later, and it’s unclear how much the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has learned from Katrina. But one thing is clear: The same cannot be said for animal welfare groups. They have faced setbacks, but their response to Superstorm Sandy marks a turning point in coordination and technological advancement for the community.
AT FIRST, MICHELLE DIDN’T intend to leave her dogs—Bentley, a maltese, and Bella, a Lhasa Apso—behind. The plan was to take them with her to the mainland, where she would be staying with friends. But those friends were likewise evacuated, and the friend she eventually found to take her in couldn’t have the dogs around. She didn’t want to leave them alone, and for a time she considered weathering the storm at home. But Brittany wouldn’t leave her side—and she wasn’t going to have her daughter in harm’s way. Running out of options, Michelle made a last-minute call to the nearest people and pet shelter, but they only accepted crated animals. She didn’t have a crate, and the stores—by now—were closed. Michelle had run out of time. The dogs would have to stay.
With Sandy headed her way Michelle prepped the house, dedicating the living room to the dogs. She laid out over a week’s worth of food and water, and cordoned off the room with couches. Then she left, expecting to return soon. Remember: This is Long Beach Island, New Jersey, and “we always get evacuated, this was no big deal,” she says. Needless to say, there was no coming back. For 13 days, the island was on lock-down. “I don’t think people will be talking about the storm of ’62,” she says. “Sandy made it look foolish.”
After the storm, Michelle did all she could possibly do to get to her dogs. The day after Sandy hit, she notified the police station about her situation. They connected her to an animal welfare agency, and the response—on the surface—was orderly. If her house was unlivable, someone would call her, rescue the animals, and bring them to a shelter where she could pick them up. Otherwise, they’d give her dogs additional food, and regularly check on them.
Two days later, Michelle hadn’t heard back. So she called again and was connected to a different organization. The dogs were fine, they said. But Michelle wasn’t exactly satisfied. “I tried to take my ex-husband's boat over to get my animals, because I lived next to the bay,” she says. “But State Police stopped me because there were live wires in the water.”