Helping pets impacted by Hurricane Ian

Person working in the back of a transport van with crates containing cats following Hurricane Ian
Teams work nonstop to assist dogs and cats in Florida shelters
By Kelli Harmon

“The level of destruction is immense.” That’s how Sharon Hawa, Best Friends emergency response senior manager describes the hardest-hit areas in Florida after Hurricane Ian made landfall last week. As search and rescue crews work to reach people, Best Friends continues to assist by moving dogs and cats impacted by the storm.

“We knew this storm would require a massive, coordinated effort in order to get pets to safety,” says Best Friends CEO Julie Castle. “I’m grateful to our teams and our network partners for springing into action before it even made landfall to save the most lives that we can.”

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Sharon says, “Early on, we identified that the best way we can help is to tap into our national network of partners around the country.” Best Friends vans have been rolling out of Florida with homeless pets who were in shelters before Hurricane Ian hit.

Nearly 250 dogs and cats (and counting) have made it to safety with our partners around the country. That’s thanks to a large team of staff and volunteers, both from Best Friends and many other organizations coming together to save lives.

When a disaster hits, people can feel helpless to do anything about it. But with everyone working together and a coordinated plan, needs can be met with support. Best Friends received a request to get 80 cats from the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office in south central Florida after the storm passed directly over the area. A Best Friends staff person hit the road right away, picked up the cats and navigated flooded back roads to bring them to Sarasota for a flight leaving the next day.

Then she picked up another 40 cats from Sarasota County Sheriff's Office and Humane Society of Sarasota County to drive back and meet the Best Friends ground transport crew in Lakeland.

Think of it as a relay race that saves pets’ lives, because that’s exactly what it is.

Two waves of pet rescue

“We are continuing to hear from shelters that need help. Some have been completely without assistance or connectivity to even call for assistance,” Sharon says. “Our strategy for having cleared out some of those support shelters has worked out because now those shelters, who are closer, can take in animals from those in need.”

Clearing out space in those shelters through transports means many vehicles, volunteers, crates, plus lots of love for each dog, cat, kitten and puppy on board.

Sharon says, “We have staff and volunteers in Florida and from our teams in Atlanta and Houston helping, as well as emergency response volunteers who came in from as far away as California, Utah, the Carolinas and Massachusetts.” Chuck Quon is the dedicated volunteer who drove a van all the way from Los Angeles to Florida. The trip just to get to the animals in Florida took “2,200 miles, 32 hours, 25 assorted podcasts plus music by Led Zeppelin and Zac Brown Band,” Chuck says.

The reward for those many hours of driving is finally arriving at the destination with a van filled with homeless pets and seeing everyone there waiting to receive them and help them find new homes.

A caravan of vehicles piloted by Best Friends staff and volunteers (including Chuck) safely moved 74 dogs and 30 cats out of Florida to San Antonio Humane Society in Texas.

Ongoing effort to save pets in Florida

Best Friends has three more trips scheduled this week to save Florida pets impacted by the storm, but it’s only the beginning. The devastating impacts of a natural disaster go on long after the news and search and rescue crews leave. We’re already looking ahead to the coming weeks.

Florida has a 30-day stray hold for dogs and cats, and that means that there will be a second wave of pets who need a place to go once their stray hold is up. Sharon says, “We know there will be ongoing needs, it’s just a matter of whether the shelter system in Florida can handle the influx.”

Best Friends will be there to support those shelters and the pets who find safety with them.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of Best Friends magazine. Want more good news? Become a member and get stories like this six times a year.

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