“The walls were shaking; I thought any minute the house was going to lift off the ground and fly into the air,” says Charlene Campbell of Cape Coral, FL. “I told my husband (of 14 years) that I forgive him for everything. I really did think we’d meet the Tin Man, the Wizard, Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion.”
No one would call Campbell cowardly, but some might call her unwise. With her husband, she weathered Hurricane Charley’s punch from a closet in her home. The storm wasn’t supposed to hit so close, and like everyone else they were surprised when it changed direction. Still, they had enough warning to leave. But where would she go with her two dogs, and 30 cats? Campbell breeds and rescues Persian cats.
“The way I see it, we had no choice,” says Campbell. “I’m responsible for the welfare of my animals.”
Campbell’s home suffered minimal damage, though others on her block fared much worse.
She says, “I realize I was very, very lucky. We could have died.”
In fact, people do die in disasters, refusing to evacuate because there is nowhere for them to take their pet, according to Anne Culver, Director of Disaster Preparedness at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Also, people forced to leave their pets behind often return to their homes before authorities say it is safe to retrieve them, which places them at risk as well as emergency responders who go into these areas after those people.
On hard-hit Sanibel Island, some residents ignored authorities and rented boats to sneak back to their homes out of concern for their property, their belongings, and their pets. The mandatory evacuation was Friday, August 13. It wasn’t until Monday that emergency action volunteers made it back to some homes with National Guard troops and police to feed animals. One authority said he would be surprised if many of those pets left behind didn’t perish in the storm.
Not willing to leave animals behind, Helen Carson of Cape Coral weathered out the storm with her human family as well as her own three Bichon Frise dogs, her son’s Boston terrier and Boxer, one daughter’s cat and another daughter’s elderly mixed breed dog. Some of the family hunkered down at her son’s nearby home, also in Cape Coral and the others stayed with Helen and her husband.
Carson, who is 65, says, “We had nowhere to go with all those pets.” Neither Carson nor her son’s home suffered much damage. She calls herself lucky.
Of course, not everyone was as fortunate.
Tears streamed down a woman’s face (she asked not to be identified by name) as she spoke not far from the place where her mobile home once stood at the Maple Leaf Gold and Country Club in Port Charlotte Village. Not realizing the hurricane would be so bad, and not willing to leave her dog ” the senior citizen was determined to sit tight. That’s just what she did. She says she might have died, and thought that she was going to.
She survived with only a few scratches, although her home is in ruins and she has few remaining belongings to her name. Yet her spirit remained indomitable until she was told that the shelter she planned to stay at would not allow her to be there with her little brown dog. “They wanted to separate me from him. I won’t have that,” she says. “He’s all I have left in the world.”
The vast majority of the problem is that emergency shelters, including Red Cross facilities, do not allow pets. Culver, who is in Washington D.C., says she understands why that is so, but points out that communities could create alternatives. “Pets don’t have to displace the limited places there are for humans,” she says. For example, during the West Virginia floods in 2001, a horse training area on high ground was used to house animals. During the 2003 fires in California many shelters offered adjacent accommodations for animals. Some shelters even accepted pets.
Dr. Barry Kellogg is a veterinarian who is deployed to disaster sites by FEMA as a part of the National Disaster Medical System. His first assignment in Florida after Charley hit was to help set up a hospital emergency room for people.
“It’s clear we have a problem,” says Kellogg in Punta Gorda. “While I understand the Red Cross position, something must be done so people have safe refuges to go to with pets. It’s very frustrating for us, as emergency responders, and as a veterinarian I certainly understand what pets mean. This isn’t only a matter of saving animal lives, we could prevent loss of human life.”
Some people do evacuate, but figure their pets are best off let loose. Of course, that isn’t necessarily true. Besides in the commotion of a disaster, pets may get separated from their families. Since ID tags may fall off, veterinarians and Gail Miller, spokesperson for the American Kennel Club, suggest microchipping. In Florida, as early as 72 hours after the hurricane hit some displaced pets were reunited with their family because they were microchipped.
At first, those seeking veterinary care had a difficult time finding it since, with one exception, all the vet clinics in and around Punta Gorda suffered severe damage. The only clinic that wasn’t damaged was without power and water. However, the HSUS Disaster Animal Response Team managed to set up an animal services center in Punta Gorda about 72 hours after the hurricane hit, which was staffed by a volunteer veterinarian. Meanwhile, emergency response veterinarians were deployed throughout the area.
Campbell, the Persian cat breeder says, “All the volunteers are working very hard, and neighbors have come together to help one another. We feel like the entire country has come to our aid. But I just hope in the future more consideration is given to people with pets, so we feel we at least have an alternative. It’s amazing more lives weren’t lost.”
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