November 15, 2017


 Aiding animals after Irma

Veterinarians describe impact of September hurricane on Florida

Posted Nov. 1, 2017

A Key deer drinking water
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided water to Key deer in the National Key Deer Refuge, where a storm surge raised the salinity of their usual water sources. (Photo by Dan Chapman/USFWS)

Dr. James H. Waddell, owner of Lower Keys Animal Clinic in Key West, reopened his clinic six days after Hurricane Irma crossed the Florida Keys.

Owners brought in heart patients with decompensation and kidney patients that needed fluids. One had given a dog half doses of furosemide as supplies ran low.

Some came with dogs draped over their hands but without money. Dr. Waddell welcomed them.

"I believe there's a heaven," he said.

One organization, Friends of Animals, has helped pay bills of others unable to pay, Dr. Waddell said. Some clients have done the same, and one sent a check for $50 to help pay others' bills.

"It has been heartening to see the public come together and try to help each other out," he said.

Hurricane Irma had 130 mph sustained wind speeds when it crossed the Florida Keys and reached the mainland Sept. 10. It brought heavy rain and flooding to Florida and Georgia.

Dr. Waddell said Key West had substantial debris, but most buildings, including his clinic, survived.

"Up the Keys, it just looks like a bomb went off," he said.

Dr. Lawrence N. Garcia is the medical director for the University of Florida Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service team. His 11-member team drove south from the university's campus in northern Florida toward the Keys Sept. 12-15.

"As you go down below Marathon Key, that's where you really, really see massive devastation—where you can see water lines were far, far above the normal," he said.

Floria VETS team examining a dog
University of Florida Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service team volunteers examine a dog in Key West. (Photo by Brandi Phillips/UF)

Vegetation and sand were plastered at eye level on buildings and fences. Road clearing crews had created roadside piles of sand, trees, and pieces of cars and boats.

Steel canoes from the Boy Scout and Girl Scout campsites were ripped in half. Kayaks lolled in trees.

The wind had stripped wooded areas bare. Leaves on remaining trees had turned brown from being showered with saltwater. Manufactured homes lay on their sides.

The devastation was worse through Big Pine, Cudjoe, and Sugarloaf keys.

"There were buildings that now were just a pile of debris," he said.

New homes built on stilts survived the storm, but other waterfront homes were buried in three feet of sand. Sunken, broken, and beached boats lined the sides of bridges between the Keys.

Dr. Garcia grew up in South Florida and spent most of his life in the southeast.

"This is probably the most profound devastation I've seen, with such widespread impact," he said.

The Florida Keys National Weather Service office warned before landfall that Irma was likely to collapse sturdy buildings, uproot trees, inundate the Keys with storm surge flooding, wash away roads, and change shorelines. About 6.5 million Florida residents, including everyone in the Keys, were told to evacuate.

About 6.7 million homes and businesses lost power because of the hurricane, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management. About 10 percent of the outages remained a week later, and about 4,000 people remained in emergency shelters.

The hurricane killed about 100 beef cattle, flooded forage crops, and damaged ranch and dairy buildings, fences, and other infrastructure, according to an early October preliminary report from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The hurricane caused about $2.5 billion in damage to Florida's agriculture industries, including $237 million in damage to the beef cattle industry, $12 million to the dairy industry, and $37 million to aquaculture.

The aquaculture industries reported heavy losses of livestock, infrastructure, and equipment, the report states.

Philip J. Hinkle, executive director of the Florida VMA, said the Florida Veterinary Corps worked with the VETS team to provide emergency animal care and restore operations at veterinary clinics throughout the state. For corps members, that included examining animals at pet-friendly emergency shelters.

Hinkle said VMA staff also called and sent messages to clinics in the 12 hardest-hit counties and sent people to the clinic doors of veterinarians whom they had been unable to contact. Some clinics needed two weeks to return to operation, but none had substantial damage, Hinkle said.

"The Florida veterinary community was very well-prepared," he said.

Disaster response teams from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also provided relocation, rescue, and shelter for more than 1,200 animals in Florida and South Carolina, ASPCA information states. The organization established a 40,000-square-foot shelter in South Carolina, where ASPCA staff and volunteers brought animals from shelters before and after the hurricane.

Tim Rickey, vice president of field investigations and response for the ASPCA, said ASPCA teams also worked after the hurricane to provide search and rescue for animals and deliver animal care supplies. Moving animals from local shelters to the South Carolina facility not only moved animals out of harm's way but also made room for shelters to take in pets displaced by the storm.

The ASPCA gave shelters and pet owners supplies for more than 11,000 animals, including food, bedding, medical products, and crates, ASPCA information states.

Boat, other debris in Hurricane Irma aftermath
No Name Key, Florida (Photo by J.T. Blatty/FEMA)

Storm surges of up to 4 feet inundated Big Pine Key and raised the salinity of freshwater wetlands essential to wildlife, including an endangered subspecies of white-tailed deer. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees found listless and dehydrated Key deer a week after Hurricane Irma hit the island, USFWS information states.

A Sept. 20 announcement indicates that, on average, the wetlands within the National Key Deer Refuge were unacceptable water sources for wildlife. Service employees provided freshwater stations in the refuge and asked the public to provide freshwater on their property, a break from longstanding policy against individual help for the deer.

A USFWS wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Samantha E.J. Gibbs, said in the announcement that the refuge retained enough forage for the deer. In a message, she said service employees had found a few deer with minor injuries and about 20 dead following the hurricane.

As roads were cleared, she and others would conduct a population survey. The time needed to recover freshwater sources would depend on rainfall, she said.

A screwworm infestation identified in the Keys in 2016 killed about 135 of the endangered deer before the infestation was declared eradicated in March 2017. The deer population was thought to be between 700 and 1,000 earlier this year.

Before his veterinary technicians returned to Key West, Dr. Waddell provided more intravenous injections and catheters than he had in the preceding 10 years, he said.

He said the University of Florida's emergency clinic was a godsend. It relieved pressure on him and gave people and animals care, he said.

The VETS team provided a field hospital in Key West to treat animals while other clinics were closed. They set up the clinic in the back of a restaurant that had intermittent water, which team members supplemented with bottled water they brought with them.

The team consisted of two veterinarians, three veterinary students, a coordinator, a public information officer, and four logistics volunteers who performed tasks such as gathering fuel, delivering animal food to distribution centers, scouting for animals in need, and securing meals for the team.

Some pets remained in homes of people who evacuated, and others had escaped damaged homes, Dr. Garcia said. They had small abrasions and lacerations, and many were emaciated and weak.

"The people were so grateful that there was somebody there to talk to them, to look at the animal, to evaluate and just give them peace of mind," Dr. Garcia said.

Animal control officials and other residents brought the animals to the field hospital, where Dr. Garcia's team provided fluids, placed catheters, and provided other medical care. Team members sent stabilized animals to Marathon when they needed hospitalization, and they told animal owners to follow up with their local veterinarians.

As clinics regained electricity, the team gave them perishable items, such as several hundred doses of vaccines, to replace ruined supplies. The team also coordinated delivery of replacement insulin and additional vaccines.

Dr. Garcia said the hurricane exposed the community's deep roots and showed people at their best. People in the community offered help where they could, whether that involved driving someone to a veterinary hospital in Marathon or offering to cook meals for the VETS team, he said.

The Florida VMA is collecting donations. Go to or call 800-992-3862.

Ways to help with disaster relief

The American Veterinary Medical Foundation offers reimbursement grants of up to $5,000 for veterinarians who provide services and shelter for animal victims of disasters.

The AVMA page "Disaster Aid for Veterinarians" provides information on recent hurricanes and wildfires, including a section on possible future volunteer work.