Teamwork saves pets after Texas tornado

Sophia Proler selfie with Gus the black and white dog following the tornado in Pasadena
A tornado blew the roof off Pasadena Animal Shelter, but quick action and collaboration assured the safety of every animal.
By John Polis

The tornado that recently sliced through the southeastern part of Houston, Texas, didn’t injure anyone, but it flattened homes, mangled cars, and uprooted trees. It also tore the roof off a building at the City of Pasadena Animal Shelter and Adoption Center, putting more than 200 dogs and cats in harm’s way.

It was about 2:30 p.m. when the twister hit. So swiftly did it advance on the shelter that the staff had no time to prepare. “We had a sandwich board out front, and I started to open a door to bring it in,” says Johana Murillo, assistant shelter manager. “I barely got the door cracked open when it hit.”

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Small debris had just started hitting the windows when everyone on the 15-member staff scrambled to the middle of the building to take cover. They eventually huddled in a bathroom until, mercifully, the tornado passed. Amid sudden calm, some staff members made the rounds to check on the animals while others scrambled to collect sensitive paper records, pick up rubble, and mop rain-soaked floors. It was all hands on deck.

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While all animals and people were safe, the building itself was a different story: The roof was torn off one structure that housed most of the animals. The twister also obliterated anything attached to the roof: ventilation units, ceiling tiles, insulation, security cameras, you name it. Everything was soaked. The power was out. And debris was everywhere. Just reaching areas of the building required careful navigation around loose wires, broken ceiling tiles, debris, and jammed doorways.

“It was pure chaos at first,” says Sarah Garcia, the shelter’s volunteer enrichment coordinator. “We had to get the animals out.”

The community responds

The Best Friends team in Houston heard about the tornado damage to the shelter about an hour after it hit and contacted Johana to offer help. The first priority was to find other places for the animals to go — immediately. The word went out, and organizations stepped up to help.

Most of the displaced pets went to temporary housing with nearby boarding facilities and shelter partners, but for other animals the tornado led to a road trip. With help from Best Friends, eight of the dogs were soon on their way to Colorado to be adopted into new homes. “We don’t have a transport that runs up there,” says Sarah. “But Best Friends got us a transport van, hotel, gas, everything we needed within 24 hours.”

“We received a great response,” says Sarah. “Around 30 shelters and rescue groups enabled us to place about 112 of our animals before we went home that night.”

Saving the seven

However, it would be a different story for seven dogs housed in an isolation area in a far corner of the damaged building. They had been in the quarantine area when the tornado struck because they were sick, and they were the last ones removed from the building. In the storm’s immediate aftermath, a gas leak prevented caregivers from getting to them. Although it was quickly repaired, the dogs were essentially trapped until they could be safely moved to another quarantine location for veterinary care. And that would be complicated because other area shelters were already inundated from taking in healthy dogs.

Sophia Proler, manager of lifesaving programs for Best Friends in Houston, went to meet the dogs the day after the tornado hit. It was a diverse group of seven frightened, wet canines who greeted her and the Pasadena staff with assorted howls and barks.

Graham, a fluffy husky mix, appeared to be in the most discomfort. “His eyes were dull. And petting him you realized that his fluff was disguising a very skinny pup. He had thick, green nasal discharge coming from his nose, and he refused to eat,” Sophia says. “When he saw the leash, he slowly got up and walked outside with you. But once back in his space, he went right back to his bed to lie down.”

A creative solution was needed to get these seven dogs out of the damaged, roofless building, so Sophia called on Houston Pets Alive!, a Best Friends Network Partner. Its empty isolation area was available, and soon the seven dogs were on their way there.

Rare medical challenge

Once the seven were transported to Houston Pets Alive! by Pasadena’s animal control officers, however, a test on Denny, a tan German shepherd mix, revealed a rare pathogen called streptococcus zooepidemicus (strep zoo). The condition, for which there is no vaccine, is known to cause abrupt outbreaks of fatal pneumonia among dogs in shelters. All seven dogs showed signs of infection, including fever, depression, cough, and nasal discharge.

This presented a new set of challenges. The dogs were welcome to stay at Houston Pets Alive!, but they would need additional staff to care for them exclusively. And the staff would have to follow strict protocols to prevent spreading the disease to other dogs.

That’s where the Best Friends team came in. “When we discovered strep zoo, we offered our team, which has experience in isolation protocols,” says Sophia.

Special care for sick dogs

This wasn’t the first time the Best Friends team in Houston helped in an emergency situation. In October they assisted a local shelter with a hoarding case involving about 130 cats. “We helped them build out an emergency shelter,” says Sophia. “With that team experience, we had already dipped our toes (in emergency response).”

All nine staff people from Best Friends in Houston — guided by Dr. Erin Katribe, medical director at Best Friends — were involved in caring for the dogs and nursing them through treatment. The plan was simple but intense: two people per shift, two shifts a day (morning and evening), cleaning, walking, feeding, enrichment, etc. “People also had their regular job duties on top of this,” says Sophia. “But everyone showed an amazing capability to step up in an emergency.”

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Over the next 10 days, the dogs received treatment, leading to each of them making a full recovery. Even Graham, the sweet guy who was most under the weather following the tornado, is feeling great and is once again curious about the world, exploring new places, dogs, and people.

Most important of all, everyone’s quick action, beginning with the Pasadena staff, staved off a potentially serious infection outbreak. “Everything turned out amazing,” says Noelle Delgado, Houston Pets Alive! executive director. “Every single dog is ready (for a new home). Best Friends did a great job. They were on-site every day, morning and night, taking care of all their medical needs.”

Moving on from natural disaster

In the few weeks since the tornado hit the Pasadena shelter, the community has responded to help. “We’ve received a ton of dog and cat food, litter, toys, enrichment and foster supplies,” says Sarah. “Many people have volunteered to foster animals.”

It remains to be seen whether the Pasadena Animal Shelter will repair or replace its damaged building. But for now, all the animals impacted by the tornado are safe and ready to go into homes or already well on their way there.

This article was originally published in the May/June 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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