Shelter from the Storm: AWI Aids Animal Rescue as Hurricanes Pummel Virgin Islands

AWI isn’t usually involved in disaster relief and recovery, but when there’s a problem staring us in the face and we know we can make a difference, we act.

It started with a personal appeal from a resident of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands: The island was devastated by Hurricane Irma—no power, no water, and no prospects for a quick recovery. The Humane Society of St. Thomas (HSSTT) had done an amazing job of securing the hundreds of dogs and cats in its care (some of whom were surrendered by evacuating owners and some of whom were already in the shelter). Shelter staff made sure they all were fed and exercised and then crated throughout the storm. As soon as it was safe—and under the constraints of a 6 p.m. to noon curfew—volunteers returned to care for the animals. But with so much of the island’s infrastructure destroyed and a projected recovery time measured in years, not months, it seemed unlikely that anyone would want to adopt a new pet any time soon. The animals just needed to get out.

Enter Virginia Beach resident Sali Gear. Sali has a special relationship with the Virgin Islands—she grew up in St. Croix and is on the board of the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center. Through her organization, Island Dog Rescue, she has brought hundreds of “island” dogs to the continental United States for adoption. Sali learned how dire the situation was on both St. Thomas and St. Croix following Hurricane Irma; an email from an HSSTT volunteer reported, “The devastation from this thing is incredible.”

Sali also knew that, as a commercial pilot, she was in a unique position to help. Through her contacts at commercial airlines and with other pilots, she commandeered cargo space on every flight she could, shipping down generators, dog and cat food, additional pet crates, vaccines, and medical supplies to St. Thomas and St. Croix shelters, and shipping back as many dogs and cats as she could, often checked as baggage for people who just happened to be leaving the islands. She helped organize vaccination clinics for pets on the islands to get the required USDA health certificates that would allow them to travel stateside.

Just when it looked like the situation was stabilizing on the islands, the situation got far more critical. A second Category 5 hurricane—Maria—was barreling down along the exact path that Irma had carved out. Sali’s plan to fly the animals out over a period of time had to be scrapped. The animals needed to fly now. So Sali did what any pilot would do—she chartered a plane. And when AWI was asked if we could provide funding for it, we didn’t hesitate to say “yes.”

The morning of September 18, an Amerijet 727 with cargo capacity to carry 300 dogs and cats to safety flew from Miami to St. Thomas and St. Croix. On those two islands, swarms of volunteers selflessly delayed their own preparations for Hurricane Maria and formed convoys to crate and transport the animals from the shelters to the airports. The plane left St. Croix and flew nonstop to Norfolk International Airport, landing at 1:17 a.m. on Tuesday, September 19, where it was met by around 50 volunteers, including four AWI staff members. For the next two hours, pallet after pallet of crated dogs and cats streamed out of the belly of the aircraft and each animal was inventoried, given water, and loaded into a private truck or van and driven to a temporary staging area at a farm in nearby Virginia Beach. There, you would never have guessed it was the middle of the night—another hundred or so volunteers, who had been preparing the farm all day, greeted the arriving animals, fed them, watered them, gave them walks, made sure they were checked out by a veterinarian, and cleaned their crates.

As the sun rose that morning, rescue groups from all over the East Coast began arriving to escort the animals on the next leg of their journey to find new homes. The Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team flew a small plane down and took 22 dogs and cats for placement in western Pennsylvania. More animals traveled by van to rescue groups in the Boston area. By Wednesday afternoon all but five animals had been moved out to other rescue organizations.

The animals got off the islands with little time to spare. That night, Hurricane Maria began battering the Virgin Islands, destroying what little Irma had left. Residents described it as “a different kind of destruction” with a 9-foot storm surge that flooded everything. The St. Croix shelter was completely destroyed—roofs blown away, heavy metal cages smashed and blown into the road. The one part of the shelter that survived was the relatively new veterinary clinic, but shelter staff were later forced to weld the clinic door shut to prevent looting.

Island Dog Rescue pulled off the nearly impossible to get these pets out of harm’s way and we are honored to have played a role. As Sali says, it takes a “pack” to get things done.