Man's Best Friend

11.07.12

How Pets Survived Hurricane Sandy

Jesse Ellison reports on the ways social media, shelters, and new legislation helped pets get rescued after the storm.

Stacey Carmona lost her business in Hurricane Sandy: the Staten Island salon she’s owned for a decade was perilously close to the beach. So was her sister’s home, which flooded with 10 feet of water and is now condemned. But the worst thing that she lost in the storm was a tiny 4-month-old Yorkshire Terrier puppy named Roxy—technically her sister’s dog, but one that had already felt like part of the family.

“She just disappeared into the dark,” Carmona says. “My sister lost everything. For her dog to go missing, it was the icing on the cake. She was inconsolable. It was the worst thing that could possibly happen.”

It will likely be months before we know exactly how many pets were lost or displaced by Hurricane Sandy. But according to the American Humane Association, some 15 million dogs were in the storm’s path. Multiple Facebook groups have sprung up in Sandy’s wake, including Hurricane Sandy Lost and Found Pets, which by Nov. 6, more than 22,000 people had “liked,” and some 95,000 were talking about, according to the page. And efforts aren’t just ad hoc: both the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States have deployed teams to New York and New Jersey to assist in search-and-rescue operations, give out food and medical care, and create temporary emergency shelters for pets found lost in the storm.

Pets may seem like a secondary concern in the aftermath of a storm that claimed not just homes but also human lives, but according to some of the people who've spent the last few days working around the clock to help reunite families with their animals, the loss of a pet can be—as it was for Carmona and her family—deeply emotionally traumatizing. “I’m in a shelter day by day with these people who have nothing left,” says Niki Dawson, the director of disaster services for the Humane Society of the United States. “They don’t know if they can go home. They’re depending on clothes from the Red Cross. To see their faces light up when they are able to pet their cat or walk their dog. That, that, is what makes you understand.”

"Over and over again we hear from people, ‘I don’t care if I lost my house. I don’t care if I lost my car. It’s just stuff. At least I have my dog.’"

Dawson says her groups’ efforts have largely been concentrated in New Jersey, where 30 people are working in three counties. On the barrier islands, which were devastated by Sandy, they are bringing in an average of 60 displaced animals every day. In areas like Staten Island and the Rockaways—regions of New York that were similarly impacted by the storm—the situation isn’t quite so dire, largely because of New York City’s unusual approach to disaster planning.

In 2006, following Hurricane Katrina, in which some quarter of a million pets died after being left behind by their owners, Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, requiring that state and local disaster plans include pets in their procedures. In 2007, New York City assembled a task force to help with this planning, and the result, experts say, is the strongest implementation of the Act in the country. In the wake of a disaster like Sandy, all of New York CIty’s shelters are required to accept pets, as are city taxis and even public transportation systems. 

Pets may seem like a secondary concern in the aftermath of a storm that claimed not just homes but also human lives, but the loss of a pet can be deeply emotionally traumatizing.

"It’s not just feel-good legislation,” Dawson says. “If people are not encouraged to bring their pets with them, if they don’t have the comfort and security in knowing that their pets will be cared for, people will not follow evacuation orders. People will put themselves in harm’s way, and put first responders in harm’s way if they have to be rescued.”

Allison Cardona, of the ASPCA’s Field Investigations and Response team, says that some 250 pets remain in New York City shelters a full week after the storm. In regions that have been cut off from power and supplies, her team has been delivering pet food, and they hope to scale up that delivery in future days with big donations from Petsmart Charities, Iams, and Del Monte Foods. P&G Pet Care has already pledged to donate more than 88 tons of food to help the region’s affected animals.

For all of these large-scale efforts, many are struck most profoundly by the power of the internet. When Ruthann Vahlstrom-Holbert’s animal shelter, Tails of Love Rescue in East Brunswick, New Jersey, was seriously damaged in the storm, some 30 strangers showed up to help fix the runs and facilities after seeing Facebook posts. And Melody Carey, a Hoboken, NJ, resident who found a lost dog wandering the streets of the city on Saturday, says that social media helped her find the dog’s owner—a disabled woman who was unable to leave her house after the storm—before she’d even had a chance to print out fliers. 

Though Cardona says that reuniting families with their lost pets is incredibly rare, Carmona’s story had a happy ending too. After Roxy’s disappearance, she filed a lost dog report on the website lostmypet.com, contacted Lost and Found Pets Staten Island, a Facebook group, and in no time, the photo of the tiny black puppy was cross posted, on Craigslist, and other sites devoted to reuniting missing animals with their owners in the wake of the hurricane. On Monday, Carmona got a call from a young man who’d found the little dog on Richmond Road, one of the island’s main thoroughfares, and Roxy was returned to her family. 

“I have to say, it was amazing,” Carmona says now. “You know what it feels like when you can exhale? That’s how it feels. I feel like we can breathe now.”