Disaster follows disaster
GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico; SANTA ROSA, California––An October 16, 2017 flash flood forcing the Humane Society of Puerto Rico to evacuate all animals and personnel at a moment’s notice had much in common with wildfires impelling the evacuation of northern California animal shelters and sanctuaries a few days earlier.
Despite the conflicting characteristics of habitat, both the flooding and the fires are among the long-forecast effects of global warming. Intensified tropical storm seasons and stronger, more frequent hurricanes in the Caribbean and southeastern U.S. start from the same climatic changes causing dryer woods and grasslands in California, and fiercer wind-driven blazes.
No time to lose
Both the Puerto Rico and California disasters hitting in mid-October 2017 gave animals––and humans––little time to flee.
Tropical depression Invest 92L on October 15, 2017 initially caused flooding along the Guamani River in the Guayama region on the south side of Puerto Rico. This was on the far side of steep mountains from the Humane Society of Puerto Rico in Guaynabo, among the western suburbs of the capital city of San Juan. But as Invest 92L drifted northwest toward the Bahamas, on October 16, 2017 it inundated the steep, muddy, already severely eroded slopes directly above Guaynabo.
Hurricanes Irma, which narrowly missed most of Puerto Rico, and Maria, which reached Puerto Rico with Category 5 force, slowing to Category 4 when it hit the mountains, had already stripped the hillsides of ground-holding vegetation and partially plugged the creek running almost under the southeast corner of the Humane Society of Puerto Rico shelter.
Stopped the first pickup truck
When the creek rose, it rose in a hurry. Humane Society of Puerto Rico staff rushed out into the street, stopped the first passing pickup truck, and asked for help to move animals to the school gymnasium in Bello Monte, a few blocks north, that the shelter had used as a temporary headquarters during previous flooding in 2012.
The “two knights of the black pick-up,” whose names the Humane Society of Puerto Rico did not catch, “made more than four trips transporting our pets,” the staff said in a Facebook thank-you posting.
City police, emergency management personnel, and volunteers joined in the evacuation effort. An hour later the Humane Society of Puerto Rico posted an “all safe” message.
Before the flash flood, the Humane Society of Puerto Rico, like every other functioning animal and human aid organization on the islands hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, had been focused for several days on educating the public about the risk to both animals and humans of contracting leptospirosis from drinking contaminated and inadequately boiled water.
Transmitted by ingesting bacteria of the genus Leptospira, leptospirosis is carried most often by mice and rats, and by dogs who eat infected mice and rats, but can be carried by almost any mammal who ingests the bacteria.
Animal shelters, animal hospitals, and rescue organizations throughout Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are still struggling to get back up and running, amid island-wide shortages of food, water, electricity, and fuel.
The experience of the Villa Michelle Albergue Animales, located high on a mountain overlooking Mayaguez at the extreme west end of Puerto Rico, appears to have been typical.
“Thank god Hurricane Maria didn’t destroy us, but she left us badly damaged,” Villa Michelle Albergue Animales posted. “There are many [downed] trees and vegetation that need to be removed and volunteers are needed for that. Many of our facilities were very damaged. We have a small generator, but we have no water. Unfortunately, we lost all our vaccines and medicines that require refrigeration. Many of our roofs did not resist the winds and our animals were deprived [of cover]. Our employees have suffered because we have had to reduce” their paid working hours, “because our economic situation requires it.”
With electricity restored to only about 17% of Puerto Rico, and power lines still down throughout the Caribbean paths of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, updates from the animal aid organizations of the stricken islands are still scarce.
Among the few that have restored relatively normal communications, the Vieques Humane Society, on the island of Vieques, east of Puerto Rico, has focused on transporting homeless animals to shelters on the U.S. mainland.
The St. Croix Animal Welfare Center, in Kingshill, Virgin Islands, reports having to rebuild the organization’s shelter. Meanwhile, the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center is also sending homeless animals to shelters on the U.S. mainland as often as possible, and has distributed tons of donated pet food and other supplies to St. Croix residents who are trying to rebuild their homes and lives.
The Diablo Winds fires
While Puerto Rico is the least affluent U.S. state or territory, the “Diablo Winds” fires in northern California––named for Mount Diablo, or “Devil’s Mountain,” the highest peak in the region––ravaged some of the most affluent outlying suburbs of the San Franciso Bay area.
The fires have been most intense in the wine-growing region including the Valley of the Moon and foothills north of Napa, east of Santa Rosa. Among the vineyards are––or were––numerous gated retirement communities and hillside homes built by affluent retirees. These were the people who, with their animals, had the most difficulty making quick getaways when evacuation orders came.
Altogether, nearly two dozen separate wildfires, many of them still burning out of control as of October 17, 2017, have burnt over more than 214,000 acres, forced about 100,000 residents to evacuate, and have damaged or destroyed at least 5,700 homes and businesses, according to the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection.
Big, yet just a fraction of the damage to Puerto Rico
Officially, as of October 17, 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria and their after-effects killed 48 people in Puerto Rico, while the Diablo Winds fires had killed 41. The hurricane death toll in Puerto Rico may be ten times as high, however, when all the deaths in the communities beyond the San Juan metropolitan area are counted.
The Diablo Winds fires hit a region where almost everyone has fire insurance, doing total damage estimated at $3 billion in Sonoma County, and perhaps two or three times as much when all affected counties are assessed.
The cost of rebuilding Puerto Rico, where barely half the population has any property insurance at all, is expected to reach $150 billion.
Descent into hell to save a cat
The Marin County Humane Society, the flagship shelter for the north San Francisco Bay region since 1907, took in more than 380 animals from people who were displaced by the Diablo Winds fires, and “provided three animal service officers to support Sonoma County’s effort to locate, rescue and care for animals affected by the wildfires,” reported Kevin McCallum of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
Perhaps the most dramatic rescue, McCallum recounted, came when “a cat’s anguished cries led firefighters to a storm drain, not far from the site of what had been the city’s newest fire station, in Santa Rosa’s devastated Fountaingrove neighborhood. The badly burned feline was rescued five days after an inferno leveled the area. There is not a home standing in the area,” McCallum said.
“Animal service officers Rachel Dalton and Chelsea Hayes responded and dropped a ladder about eight feet into the storm drain beneath the sidewalk. Hayes, who is strong but slight,” McCallum wrote, “shimmied down into the narrow cavern with a flashlight and small blue pet carrier.”
“Please take your animals with you”
The Marin County Humane Society had been “on standby to provide any help needed for animals and their guardians affected by the fires” since October 9, according to frequent Facebook updates.
“If you’re asked to evacuate, please take your animals with you if you can!” the Marin County Humane Society emphasized.
At first the Marin County Humane Society tried to direct displaced animals to shelters closer to the fire outbreaks.
“If you can’t take your animals with you, the Napa County Animal Shelter will shelter dogs, cats, rabbits, and other small pets. Large animals can be evacuated to the Sonoma Fairgrounds,” the Marin County Humane Society directed.
“We’re proud of our shelter, but it is still a shelter”
But at the same time the Marin County Humane Society was transferring as many animals as possible to shelters safely out of the afflicted areas, to open up cage space for the displaced animals the staff knew would soon be coming. Among those who took animals from the Marin County Humane Society were Animal Care & Control San Francisco, the San Francisco SPCA, and the House Rabbit Society.
Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation, in Walnut Creek, took in animals from smaller shelters in the fire zones.
“We are still accepting animals of evacuees for emergency boarding,” the Marin County Humane Society advised on October 12, 2017, “but we’re asking that people consider alternatives first before bringing their animals to us. We’re proud of our shelter, but it is still a shelter. Animals are almost always better off in a calm, quiet environment. In the meantime,” the society pledged, “we’ll continue to maximize our space and will house and care for every animal who comes through our doors.”
First known surviving animal returned to family
Close enough to some of the worst of the Diablo Winds fires to have to be ready to evacuate, the Sonoma County Humane Society received the first known animal survivor of the fires on October 9, a cat found in rubble with burned paws. A week later the Sonoma County Humane Society celebrated having returned the cat to his people, who had been away and unable to get back home when fire erupted in their neighborhood.
Early in the series of fire outbreaks both the Marin County Humane Society and the Sonoma County Humane Society reported that they were inundated with donated pet food and supplies, and had all the volunteers they needed. Both repeatedly asked would-be donors and volunteers to hold back until the crisis stabilized.
Many other local animal charities were involved in fire zone evacuations and rescues.
Specializing in large animal rescue and humane education, Forget Me Not Farm of Santa Rosa evacuated more than 20 hooved animals, including goats, sheep, llamas, donkeys and alpacas, from the home of a Forget Me Not Farm board member.
Animal Place, the oldest farmed animal rescue organization in the region, operating both a rescue and adoption shelter in Vacaville and a sanctuary called Rescue Ranch in Grass Valley, was obliged to evacuate more than 1,000 animals, mostly hens, from the Vacaville location.
“Adopt an evacuated hen! These birds are double-survivors!” Animal Place founder Kim Sturla urged. “First they were saved from being gassed to death at an egg farm. And now, they have safely fled the Atlas fire.”
The fire, as it happened, never quite reached Animal Place. The hens were returned to Vacaville on October 16, 2017.
The Atlas Fire
Among the biggest of the Diablo Winds fires, the Atlas fire was named when it swept down the slopes of Atlas Peak into the Napa Valley.
“As the raging Atlas fire bore down on the small Capell Valley community of a few dozen homes in the hills above Napa,” reported Sam Gross of USA Today, “21 of Cathy Pridmore’s goats began giving birth. Her family — multiple generations of Pridmores ranging from nieces and nephews to brothers, cousins and grandparents — were in the hills above her home fighting the fire that was threatening the land their family has called home since 1927.”
At last report the Pridmore goats and their kids were all still alive and well.
Vintage Farm, an animal husbandry education facility operated by Vintage High School in Napa, normally keeps about 30 animals, but accommodated about 200 after taking in fire evacuees, reported Howard Yune of Napa News.
“Dogs snatched from outside Atlas Peak homes menaced by flames were temporary residents of the wooden turkey pens,” wrote Yune after a visit. “Another pen was filled with 10 goats trucked in from St. Helena. Pipe fences, nets and improvisation had created space for dozens of horses from every fire-skirted corner of the county.”
Pony in a Honda
We Care Animal Rescue, of St. Helena, evacuated about 200 cats to Napa in rented vans, according to the Napa Valley Register, then camped for the duration outside the Napa county animal shelter, using the vans as temporary shelter space.
“When evacuating a raging wildfire,” wrote Michael Barnes of the Press Democrat, “you have only minutes to decide what to take with you. Most evacuees grab a change of clothes, important documents and family photos. Lauren Mesaros, 55,” of Coffey Park, “grabbed her pony, Stardust.”
A friend, Carol Spears, evacuated Mesaros’ two horses in a trailer. Then Mesaros and Spears used a carrot to lure the pony into the back of Mesaros’ 2001 Honda Accord.
Dog survival stories
Among the many animal survival stories posted to social media from the Diablo Winds fire zones was that of Odin, a Great Pyranees, left behind with eight goats when Roland Hendel, his family, and Odin’s sister Tessa evacuated. Returning to the ashes of their home days later, Roland Hendel reported finding “a burned, battered, and weakened Odin surrounded by his eight goats,” along with several deer “who had come to him for protection and safety.”
Hendel set a YouCaring fundraising goal of $45,000 to help his family recover. More than 1,800 donors had contributed nearly $70,000 by mid-day on October 16, 2017.
“A day and a half after flames forced the Weaver family to evacuate their Santa Rosa home,” reported Josh Hafner of USA Today, “brothers-in-law Jack Weaver and Patrick Widen returned to their address to search for the remains of their family’s nine-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog. They instead found the pet alive and wagging, the surprise reunion captured on video.”
Pet cemetery still green
Among the better known evacuees was Tommy Smothers, a comedian in his youth, who for the past 30 years has owned vineyards overlooking Kenwood. Smothers, 80, was recognized when he visited a Sonoma delicatessen to buy food for his cat.
Ironically, reported Joseph Serna of the Los Angeles Times, “One of the only green patches on the southwestern edge of the Atlas fire burn area is a pet cemetery,” the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, opened in 1971.
There, Serna wrote, a deer and her two fawns “found shady refuge under an oak tree as smoke plumed from the hills on the other side of Napa Valley.”