In Hurricane Sandy’s wake, a temporary shelter for pets

Liz Robbins / New York Times News Service /

NEW YORK — Brendan Scott flicked his fingers though the cage to reassure Raven, his 7-year-old black cat. With his parents standing behind him, Brendan, 15, was trying not to cry.

“He’s like a little brother,” he said, softly, of Raven. The cat and his orange companion in the next cage, Haley, had been bouncing from home to home — as their owners had — since Hurricane Sandy ravaged the family’s house in Queens.

On Sunday, Brendan and his parents, Ray and Michelle Scott, were among dozens of people who left their pets behind at another temporary home, a 20,000-square-foot emergency boarding center that opened over the weekend in a vacant warehouse in Brooklyn.

Run with affectionate precision by a team of disaster specialists from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the shelter housed 137 animals by Sunday evening and was expected to house a few hundred, if not more, before the week was out. The center can accommodate up to 700 animals, who are permitted to stay for 30 days free, with full veterinary care, until their owners can reclaim them.

“At least I know they’re safe, that’s what matters,” Ray Scott said at the entrance. Brendan added: “I’m going to come every weekend to visit.”

As the weeks of anxious uncertainty drag on for the tens of thousands of New Yorkers left homeless by the storm, pet owners have been making heart-wrenching decisions about what to do with their animals.

Jim Buonamano, 73, spent several bitter nights sleeping in his flooded, powerless home in Queens while taking care of April, a 6-year-old white German shepherd, and Bella, a 2-year-old pit bull. He contacted the city’s pet hotline after the storm, and two weeks later help arrived.

On Sunday, a man and a woman from Manhattan, who simply showed up in the Rockaways with a station wagon and a desire to volunteer, had been directed to deliver April and Buonamano to the Brooklyn shelter. Then they all went back for Bella.

“I’d rather she be someplace warm, even if I don’t see her for a month,” said Buonamano, who is now staying with a brother. “She could use a bath since she was in flood water, too.”

April’s arrival highlighted the effort, involving nonprofit organizations, private shelter operators, celebrity donors, veterinarians and unaffiliated volunteers, to mitigate the suffering of both humans and animals.

“The silver lining of a disaster is that some of these animals have never seen a veterinarian, or it had been a while,” said Matt Bershadker, the senior vice president of the ASPCA’s anti-cruelty group, which oversees field investigations.

Veterinarians from New York and others from around the country examined every animal brought in. They were aided by animal behaviorists. Taped to the cage of a Rottweiler mix was a warning for handlers: “Very Scared.”

Tim Rickey, the ASPCA’s senior director of the shelter, said: “They go through much worse than humans because they don’t understand it.”

Illnesses manifest among storm’s victims

Day and night, victims of Hurricane Sandy have been streaming into ad hoc emergency rooms and relief centers, like the MASH-type medical unit on an athletic field in Long Beach, N.Y., and the warming tent in Rockaway the size of a small high-school gym.

They complain of rashes, asthma and coughing. They need tetanus shots because — house-proud and armed with survivalist instincts — they have been ripping out waterlogged boards and getting poked by rusty nails. Those with back pain from sifting through debris get muscle relaxants; those with chest pain from overexertion are hooked up to cardiac monitors.

“I’ve been coughing,” said Gabriel McAuley, 46, who has been working 16-hour days gutting homes and hauling debris in the Rockaways since the storm hit. “I’ve never felt a cough like that before. It’s deeper down.”

It is impossible to say how many people have been sickened by what Hurricane Sandy left behind: mold from damp drywall; spills from oil tanks; sewage from floodwater and unflushable toilets; tons upon tons of debris and dust. But interviews with hurricane victims, recovery workers, health officials and medical experts over the last week reveal that some of the illnesses that they feared would occur have begun to manifest themselves.

Emergency rooms and poison control centers have reported cases of carbon monoxide exposure — and in New Jersey, several deaths have been attributed to it — from the misuse of generators to provide power and stoves to provide heat.

Raw sewage spilled into homes in Baldwin and East Rockaway, in Nassau County, N.Y., when a sewage plant shut down because of the surge and the system could not handle the backup. Sewage also spilled from a huge plant in Newark, N.J.

Health officials and experts say the risks are real, but are cautioning against hysteria. Some coughing could be due to cold damp weather. Lasting health effects from mold, dust and other environmental hazards generally require long-term, continuous exposure, they said. And the short-term effects can be mitigated by taking precautions like wearing masks, gloves and boots and removing mold-infested wallboard.

— New York Times News Service