The Forgotten Ones: How 2 Dogs Managed to Survive Superstorm Sandy

Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, animal advocates faced their greatest challenge yet—but a combination of technological advances, coordination, and legislation made all the difference

    Photo: Courtesy of PetSmart Charities

Pet rescue operations.

Pet rescue operations.

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.”

She called a third time. The man on the other end tells her not to worry: Her dogs have enough food and someone visited them only two days before. The next day, the police notice barking coming from her house and contact her landlord. Word reached Michelle that her dogs have not been visited. There had been a mix-up.

“Because the island was still closed, the police escorted me over there with sirens to get my dogs, and they escorted me back,” she says. Michelle made it just in time. Bentley lost about seven pounds, Bella four. When the storm hit, her screen door blew open, and the dogs jumped the couch. Michelle had arranged a few chairs as a staircase over the couches in case the dogs got out, but the plan didn’t work. They never made it to the food or water.

Like thousands of others, Michelle had nowhere to go with her pets—her home was wrecked and the motels didn’t accept animals even when she offered to pay extra. All she had was her car, her dogs, and her daughter. “That evening was going to be 20 degrees out. I got all of the blankets and pillows I possibly could,” she says. “I was going to sleep in the car with my dogs, and turn on the heat every half hour and snuggle with them.”

In the aftermath of Katrina, that’s where our story might have ended. But Michelle did some Google sleuthing, and she came across the St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center’s website. Given the horror stories from storms past—families broken at shelters and never again united—Michelle was worried about handing off her dogs. Erika Mathews, St Hubert’s vice president of development, convinced her otherwise—if Michelle was uneasy about giving up her dogs, she should at least take some extra blankets to stay warm. That gesture was enough.

“I started crying,” Michelle says. “There were so many people helping. They had to have had 150 animals—and this is almost three weeks after Sandy. Cats and dogs that were not up for adoption—these were people’s dogs going to foster care. All I could do was cry.”

Erika enrolled Michelle into a new program called Foster a Sandy Pet, a website that looks something like Match.com for animals and might be the future of adoption and disaster response. People who need temporary homes for their pets create listings while potential foster parents list what they can do, where they live, and how many animals they can take. St. Hubert’s sometimes provides assistance with the matchmaking, but most people make the link directly. And the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) chips in the rest: food, veterinarian care, and basic supplies likes beds and leashes.

WHEN KATRINA HIT, CHRIS O’Rourke was miles away from home, and her pets were spread across the state of Louisiana. She hadn’t willingly left them in harm’s way—travel, an unpredictable storm, and mandatory evacuation notices intervened. Her dog was boarded on the ranch on which he was born, but her cat was less fortunate. The tenant who was supposed to watch her was forced to evacuate to Baton Rouge. And as was often the case during the storm, she wasn’t allowed to take the cat with her—most shelters didn’t accept both pets and people, and there was no distribution network for pet food following the storm.

The cat was left behind, and there was nobody to rescue her. Chris was powerless to help. Driving home was out of the question; for 10 weeks, she wasn’t allowed back into the city. After 10 days of calling—and failing to get through—she finally reached a rescue organization. “I gave them permission to break down my door,” she says. They found her cat.

Then, they lost her. Chris was given a list of nearby shelters to call, but she couldn’t get through. The cell towers were still down. So for 10 weeks she called, and she called. “I eventually found her at LSU. They had converted an equestrian center to a holding pen for animals,” she says. “They had 5,000 animals there at a time, but those animals were being shipped out—it was a holding center.”

Back in 2005, the agencies didn’t have any options other than to transport pets out, says Cory Smith, who was in charge of pet retention efforts for the Humane Society of the United States during Sandy. “Everyone was simply in crisis mode” and doing their best to save the animals; the scale of the tragedy was unprecedented. But shipping animals out of state has negative repercussions. “Once you separate animals from people, the risk of animals not getting back skyrockets,” Smith says. “People make plans that don’t involve animals.”

Chris recognized this risk and was told by the shelter that her cat wasn’t going to make it unless he was immediately rescued. She found someone in Baton Rouge who could pick up her cat—and they boarded him until Chris could drive down in November. Then, she embarked on a 200-mile drive to retrieve her dog.

He survived the storm, but only just. “The family had a storm cellar with only one room,” she says. “So many relatives had come over to stay there that the owner had to put four dogs in an outside bathroom. They survived, but the shed got crushed.” Chris’ cat didn’t live long past the hurricane; the stress did her in. And her dog hardly fared better. It took him years to settle down from his anxiety.

IN THE WAKE OF Hurricane Katrina, the key animal protections agencies met to learn from their mistakes and plan for the future, says Wanda Merling, the emergency relief manager at PetSmart Charities. Part of their response was the creation of the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition (NARSC), an organization intended to help coordinate future animal disaster responses.

Even before Sandy hit, NARSC members were preparing for the worst with nightly calls between member organizations. Over at the Humane Society, Smith and his colleagues worked on strategy: All displaced animals would be kept in-state, unlike during Katrina. That New York and New Jersey have an unusually strong shelter network made things easier. Instead of taking in pets displaced by Sandy, the countless shelters calling in around the country were put to work picking up slack in the nation-wide shelter system that the Northeast normally carries.

Another main priority was keeping open the lines of communication between pet owners and relief agencies to avoid the problems that plagued the Katrina recovery, says Smith. “We ended up partnering with Governor Christie’s administration to set up a hotline,” says Laura Maloney, the chief operating officer of the Humane Society of the United States. “Generally, in a major disaster the phones are down and your local agencies, like animal control and shelters, are themselves in distress.... We wanted to give one central phone number to collate the calls.”

Meanwhile, PetSmart Charities began moving supplies into New York and New Jersey. They partnered with New York to stage emergency products in Syracuse—shortening their eventual response time after the crisis when roads would be blocked or busy. “We initially staged four trucks out of Syracuse,” says Merling (though that number would eventually reach six). Each truck was filled with goods valued at $80,000 and capable of assisting up to 500 animals at a time.

With the trucks in place, the charity partnered with the American Red Cross to actually get food to pets in need by distributing supplies through Red Cross sites and FEMA pods—a first-ever for pet disaster relief. “We broke down bags of food,” she says. “It’s a very urban area. We had a fuel shortage, so people could not just drive through and pick up the things they needed. They had to walk, and we wanted to make things as easy to carry and as convenient as possible.”

There clearly was an intense need for supplies after the storm. “When the initial trucks of pet-food deliveries were headed to the Rockaways and Staten Island they were being bombarded,” Merling says. “They initially had to turn around and come back with the assistance of NYPD and National Guardsmen.

IT WASN’T JUST BETTER planning that set Katrina and Sandy apart. Some of the biggest changes between Sandy and Katrina were legislative, says Maloney. Many states have passed laws requiring agencies to include pets in disaster planning. And “the Pets Act said you had to include pets in planning in order to receive FEMA funding,” she says. As a result, New York and New Jersey had collocated shelter, where pets and people could stay adjacent to one another. It sounds like a minor change, but it’s one that may have saved lives. In Katrina, 44 percent of people who stayed behind did so because of pets, while only 18 percent of people who stayed behind did so for other people.

After the storm hit, the search and rescue efforts began in earnest. All told, they would span roughly three weeks. The HSUS partnered with local counties to conduct search and rescue operations based on the calls they received through the governor’s hotline. Primarily working out of New Jersey, the HSUS received and responded to approximately 1,300 calls during that period. Beyond their own efforts, law enforcement officials were, in general, more responsive to pet-related calls than ever before. “In Katrina, you didn’t see human rescue as much doing that,” Maloney says. “They were instructed that this was a people rescue, not a pet rescue.”

After the immediate search and rescue efforts, the operation shifted into a mid-term interim support role, Maloney says. “You’re just providing a home for those animals in need and helping out the pet owners for around 30 days,” she says. “That gives people time to find their next place. If it’s a serious disaster, they’re going to need to find a new apartment or move, and we keep their pets—at no charge to them.” In a testament to the devastation, the last of these shelters shut down in mid-January, well over 30 days after the storm.

But before the shelters began to shutter, animal advocates realized that many pets wouldn’t have any homes to head back to, says Kim Saunders, a board member at St. Hubert’s. “The biggest need was to be able to help people who wanted to keep their pets in the long run but didn’t have any resources in the short-term,” she says. “Our goal was to find a way to provide a safety net to them so they wouldn’t be forced to give up their pets along the way. Fostering was the perfect way to make that happen.”

The answer was FosterASandyPet.com. In the first two weeks alone, over 800 people signed up to the website, says Heather J. Cammisa, the chief executive officer and president of St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center. While St. Hubert’s doesn’t track every pairing, at least 50 animals that would have been surrendered in New Jersey were kept as part of a family. And the site will remain active for at least one year after the hurricane to accommodate those with changing needs, she says.

Aside from being an immediate success story, FosterASandyPet.com is also a roadmap for future disaster response, a possibly groundbreaking development in the world of animal welfare. Areas of perennial need—sections of the country without adequate shelter infrastructure, for example—might roll out similar programs to help with both short-term and long-term animal placement, Cammisa says.

MICHELLE’S DOGS WERE IN good hands at the shelter. While the fix was only temporary, Erika quickly found a foster parent for Bentley and Bella and arranged prompt medical care to nurse them back to health. She later found them another foster parent: Chris O’Rourke, who moved from Louisiana to New York following Katrina.

Chris had seen brief mention of Foster A Sandy Pet on the local news following the storm, and she went online to sign up. A week or so later, she got a call from Erika, who had some basic questions. “The next day she drove the two dogs up to my place ... and she came with the dogs, food, and whatever the owner had retrieved that was personally theirs, like the dog bed and leashes,” Chris says. “They came with everything, which made it very easy on me.”

Michelle hopes to move home soon. Her town looks like a war zone—rows of homes with their contents washed into streets, she says. But she’s excited to be reunited with her dogs. She’ll need to wait until the landlord fixes her heating, but that day is coming soon. Until then, she can’t help but praise the efforts of Chris, Erika, and people like them.

“FEMA is not doing a quarter for us what these people are doing for our animals,” Michelle says. “They need to be praised, they need to be honored ... they are the most wonderful people in the world.”

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