As Hurricane Florence continued its menacing march toward the East Coast this week, dozens of dogs and cats were headed north — fleeing the path of the storm.
They streamed into shelters in New York, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., in vans, trucks and brightly colored carriers with their photos and vitals taped to the top.
For animal-rescue groups, hurricane season had finally begun.
Moving homeless animals out of harm’s way and making more room in shelters for dogs and cats that might get lost or left behind in the chaos of evacuations is a process many organizations have perfected for years.
“When we first heard about Florence, we reached out to our shelter friends in the Southern states and said, ‘Hey, we’re here for you,’” said Claudia Roll, vice president of the Humane Rescue Alliance, an animal-welfare organization in the district. “After the storm, it becomes more of a national effort, where you may have a very large truck full of animals that arrives in D.C. to drop off 30 or so animals, but they may have already stopped somewhere else to drop off 20 and they’ll have another 50 going to New York. It becomes quite the project.”
Workers from the organization, which has shelters in northwest and northeast Washington, received eight dogs and 18 cats from the Norfolk Animal Care Center in Virginia, a city-run shelter, on Tuesday. And they’re all available for adoption.
Roll said that, as of Wednesday, the organization could accommodate a few dozen more animals from states in Florence’s path. When animals get adopted, she said, Humane Rescue Alliance’s capacity increases.
“We’re asking people in the D.C. area, if anybody has been thinking of adopting, this is definitely the time,” Roll said. “I like to tell people that they’re actually saving two lives. They’re saving the animal they’re adopting and the animal we’re now able to bring in out of the storm.”
Groups such as the Sato Project, which transports stray dogs from Puerto Rico to adoptive families on the mainland, and Wings of Rescue, an organization that flies dogs from high-kill shelters and disaster zones to no-kill shelters, relocated hundreds of animals after last year’s string of Category 4 hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria — hit the United States.
In the district, Humane Rescue Alliance brought about 150 cats and dogs from Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. It is hoping to offer the same relief this time around.
“We’ve been doing this for a few years, but our capacity to help is growing,” Roll said.
“Every year, we look at our programs and we think, ‘What more can we do?’ And this is an area we want to be able to do more.”
They’re not alone.
A team from American Humane, a national animal-welfare group based in the district, picked up 76 cats this week from shelters in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and drove them more than 800 miles to facilities in Albany, New York, and Hartford County, Connecticut.
The group has coordinated animal rescues out of disaster zones for nearly a century.
“This is not our first rodeo, or our first rescue,” said Robin Ganzert, president and CEO of American Humane.
Animal rescues that happen during natural disasters tend to come in waves, experts said.
First, shelters in evacuation zones or areas that may be threatened send cats and dogs to other states as a pre-emptive measure — for their safety and to make room for lost pets that turn up in the middle of a disaster.
No evacuations happen in the middle of a hurricane because people can’t fly or drive safely. Instead, once the storm passes and damage can be assessed, animals from shelters in hard-hit areas may need to be moved elsewhere.
“There might be some shelters in the Carolinas that might not have been hit too hard as far as damages, but their workers and their staff has to deal with their life and what happened to their homes after a storm, so it can be difficult for them to care for all these animals in the shelter,” Roll said. “That’s where we come in.”