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December 19, 2011

Into the Disaster Zone: HSUS Animal Rescue Team Rushes In to Help After Hurricane Irene

On a mission to aid pets and people after storm pounds North Carolina

All Animals magazine

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by Michael Sharp

Jennifer Potter awoke early to the news: The water was coming.

It was 6:30 a.m. on the last Saturday of August, and Hurricane Irene was shoving its way across North Carolina’s central coastline. As the yard began to flood, Potter raced around her Pamlico County home, picking things off the floor and stacking them on bookcases, counters, and tables.

“It just kept rising up,” she says. “It started coming up on the porch, and then it came in real fast. … I just couldn’t pick up things fast enough.” The furniture started floating. The refrigerator turned over. Her Labrador-beagle mixes, Finn and Pebbles, sought higher ground on top of furniture. Eventually, Potter grabbed her cats, Morgan and Cross, and set them down safely on a king-sized mattress floating in a bedroom.

In another room, she and her husband climbed onto the top bunk with their 3-year-old son, riding out the storm as flood waters swelled 3 1/2 to 4 feet inside their home. “It’s just so devastating,” she would say later. “We lost everything.”

In the days after Irene, as the Potters stayed with relatives, returning home only to sift through the damage, they could at least take some comfort in this: All four pets were safe in a temporary shelter run by The HSUS at a neighboring county’s fairgrounds.

“With raw sewage in the house, and as much water that came up, they don’t have a dry place to sleep in there,” Potter says. “And ... I just thought this would the best decision because they’d be fed, taken care of … until I can get back to them.”

Running the shelter was just one undertaking of the HSUS Animal Rescue Team in the wake of Irene. Joining forces with Pamlico County animal control officer Berkley Hill, responders also retrieved animals left behind by fleeing families and distributed free food and fresh water to the pets of those who stayed.

Hill—whose own home was severely damaged by the flooding—would later say he’d seen photos from Hurricane Katrina but could still never imagine such devastation, until now. The daily drives, crisscrossing the county, provided a sobering view. Piles of waterlogged possessions dotted front yard after front yard—couches, dressers, televisions, fans, everything. A steeple lay in the grass alongside one church, and the marquee of another read: “Count Your Blessings, Not Your Troubles.” Cars were parked with their hoods up, in an effort to dry out the engines.

In the past, residents with nowhere to take their pets would call Hill’s office. “[When] people are displaced, a lot of times the animals are not thought about until the last minute,” says Hill. Now, instead of turning them away, he’d reached out to The HSUS. “It’s like a dramatic change for our county. I mean, it’s really something that I think is going to help set a new standard for the county and level of care for the animals.”

Amidst the ruins, the Animal Rescue Team offered a reassuring hand while working to keep the county’s pets safe, a service they provided again and again as natural disasters struck in 2011. They’re the men and women who braved deep flood waters to rescue cats off Mississippi rooftops, who worked day and night to catch pets stranded in the heartbreaking rubble of tornado-ravaged Alabama—their lifesaving efforts a critical service to communities on the mend. “You realize that connection that people have to their pets—it’s the only thing sometimes they have left that gives them any semblance of normalcy,” says Sára Varsa, the team’s director of operations.

 “And I think it’s a basic component of their healing.”

Into the Disaster Zone, Day 2 »

Read more from this issue of All Animals »

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