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Looking back at Hurricane Harvey and looking forward in Houston

One year ago, Hurricane Harvey struck the coast of Texas, destroying homes and entire streets, turning lives completely upside down. In fact, the National Hurricane Center said that, apart from Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Harvey caused more damage than any other natural disaster in U.S. history.

But what I remember most from Hurricane Harvey is not the destruction it left in its path, but what it created: lifesaving partnerships.

Best Friends was in Houston two days after Hurricane Harvey hit the coast. We deployed a search and rescue team in the city, and we immediately called upon our Best Friends Network partners from around the country to help transport pets out of local shelters to make room for pets affected by the hurricane. And, boy, did our partners really step up. In the very early days of the response, animal welfare groups from across the country volunteered to give lifesaving lifts to more than 1,300 dogs and cats from the Houston area.

Moving homeless pets out of the city and surrounding areas was just the first step, however. Before Hurricane Harvey, the mandated number of days for pets to be held in area shelters was just three, and there was no special mandate in place in case of natural disasters. So Best Friends quickly went to work, establishing an extended hold period for pets, allowing them the best chance possible at being reunited with their families, and advocating for a minimum 30-day hold for all rescue operations.

But having extra time for pets to find their families meant that we needed extra space to care for them. Enter the Pet Reunion Pavilion at Houston’s NRG Arena — a lifesaving effort among Best Friends, Harris County Public Health, Austin Pets Alive, Houston Pets Alive and Houston Pet Set.

In just a few days, NRG Arena was transformed from a huge, empty space into an efficiently-run emergency shelter. We set up hundreds of enclosures, created an area for veterinary care and set aside a space for folks to be reunited with their pets, and so much more. To this day, the colossal amount of work our incredible volunteers and staff members pulled off and the massive outpouring of support from people across the country still astounds me.

We moved more than 500 dogs and cats from the Montgomery County Fairgrounds (where we were working when we first arrived) to their new temporary home at NRG Arena. Then came the big part: Over the course of two months, more than 2,800 volunteers supported our effort and 964 of them deployed to NRG Arena, along with more than 240 Best Friends staff members, many of whom did multiple tours in Houston. They cared for 825 dogs and cats and one bunny!

Best Friends Network partners emerged as a coherent and powerful force, and because of them we were able to help around 3,000 animals. Skechers stepped up as well and provided a “kitted out” bus to transport some of the last of the animals to rescue groups and shelters up the east coast to Washington, D.C.

There was also a disaster within the disaster, as one of the dogs brought into the emergency shelter was diagnosed with distemper a week after arriving — an event that potentially put 700 dogs at risk. Distemper has a reputation similar to plague or ebola, and a recent previous outbreak in a Houston shelter had resulted in a 50 percent death rate. However, thanks to disciplined vaccination protocols and a lifesaving commitment to all of the animals in our care, the outcome was nothing short of miraculous. Of 124 dogs who tested positive for distemper, five were euthanized as a consequence of the disease and three more were euthanized with other serious conditions on top of distemper, such as an inoperable abdominal mass. Those losses were a profoundly sad and disturbing reality, but to see a 94 percent survival rate for a shelter outbreak of distemper was remarkable and means that even a dreaded disease like distemper should be considered treatable within no-kill policies and protocols.

Some of the dogs, if they needed it, were given more time to heal at a temporary center we opened in Katy, Texas, just 45 minutes away from NRG Arena. Others found their home-between-homes at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary and our pet adoption centers in Atlanta, New York City, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. And others found love and safety with our network partners — 109 partners, to be exact.

As part of Best Friends’ deployment to Houston during and following Hurricane Harvey, we built strong collaborative relationships with local organizations and especially with Harris County Animal Shelter (HCAS), which is under the direction of public health veterinarian Dr. Michael White. The city of Houston is located in Harris County and Harris County Animal Shelter provides animal control services to the unincorporated areas of the county — a population only slightly smaller than that of the incorporated City of Houston.

Houston had long been identified by Best Friends as a strategically important community and eventual regional center as part of our national no-kill campaign. Our declaration and commitment in 2016 to lead the country to no-kill by 2025 served to advance our work in the community. Even before Hurricane Harvey, we had been collaborating with HCAS, first performing a shelter assessment for them in 2016 and then beginning to fund and execute on the resulting recommendations. When Harvey hit, the relationship grew stronger, and it was Dr. White who played the most critical role in helping us to secure NRG Arena as an emergency shelter for Houston area pets impacted by the storm.

As the effects of the storm began to wane, we picked up the pace on our Houston work and moved up the timeline for establishing a presence and building out programs there. We now have two Best Friends staff operating a community cat pilot program out of HCAS and have implemented an embed program about which I am incredibly excited. The embed program involves placing Best Friends sanctuary and (eventually) regional program staff into the shelter to work side-by-side with HCAS staff — not in an office, but right in the kennels. This operational interaction has had a profound effect on both teams. Dr. White’s openness to outside input and the resulting changes it brings is impressive and is reaping big benefits for HCAS. The save rate for HCAS has gone from 18.6 percent to 74.6 percent between 2012 and 2017.

Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S. and the largest city in Texas. Texas, by the way, has the unhappy distinction of being the number one state in the country for number of animals killed in its shelters. Solving Texas, then, will get us a long way toward achieving our 2025 goals. Of course, this is not something that Best Friends, or any single organization, can accomplish alone, but a base of operations will enable Best Friends to help south Texas (one of the most problematic areas of the state) to become no-kill.

Hurricane Harvey was a disaster of monstrous proportions and we must never forget that too many victims of the storm are still struggling to get their lives back on track. However, the collaborative work done and relationships created to aid the animal victims of the storm are helping to build a new future for the community.

Together, we will Save Them All.

Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society Julie Castle
CEO
Best Friends Animal Society