Click HERE for my WGN Radio interview with Josh Cary of the American Humane Association's Red Star Emergency Services, from Oklahoma.
What defines losing everything? Thousands of residents of Moore, OK, lost their homes and most of their belongings following last week's deadly tornado. Those were the lucky ones, compared to 24 people who died, including seven children. When the giant EF5 tornado roared through Moore, Newcastle and Oklahoma City on May 20, many children we still in school -- and huge numbers of pets were home alone -- all with no way to know what was headed toward them, or what to do.
Officials are still trying to determine the number of pets who died in the storm, and how many remain missing.
The scenes of people reunited with their pets after the storm are profound. "Pets are members of the family," says Ashlee Harrington, a veterinary technician who works in Moore, and lives in nearby Midwest City. "Pets also help; I know people who think, 'I've lost everything, but at least I still have something to hold on to.'"
This was literally the case for a special third grader who attended Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore. Tragically, children died there. This little boy was under the pancaked walls but pulled to safety by rescuers. The child's primary concern was his Siberian Husky, who was at home when the tornado hit. The boy's house was destroyed. It seemed, at first, as if the dog had perished, but animal control found the dog buried under debris. With two broken legs, the dog was unable to escape.
"Because this boy is autistic, he really needed that dog in a way difficult for most of us to understand," says Harrington. "Reuniting with the dog was such a relief to him; it's all he has left."
On live TV in Moore, Barbara Garcia said that she'd lived in the community for 45 years and had a "game plan" in the event of a tornado. Following this strategy, she took her little dog and attempted to ride out the storm in a bathroom. She didn't count on the dog being literally blown from her arms, or her home collapsing around her like a house of cards.
"When it (the tornado) stopped, I hollered for my little dog, but he didn't answer," Garcia told a reporter at the scene. At that moment, from under the wreckage, the reporter spotted the dog, all captured on live TV. "God answered one prayer," said Garcia, "and let me be OK. Now, he's answered both of them." Her pet was OK, but not all pets were so lucky.
As homes were shattered by the deadly twister, personal belongings blew far and wide. Even today, homeowners across town or in nearby communities are finding personal belongings that were launched into midair. Among those belongings are cats.
"It makes sense. After all, you're dealing with an 8- to 10-pound animal," says Dr. Rick McNeal, an Oklahoma City veterinarian. He explained that one 70-pound Boxer went for a wild ride in a bathtub. The dog is in good condition, but sadly, many cats are still missing and may ultimately turn up dead.
Josh Cary, operations specialist for the American Humane Association Red Star Emergency Services and a veteran of these types of disasters, remains optimistic. "Cats are experts at hiding," he notes. "We saw this (after tornadoes) in Joplin (Missouri) that many cats were discovered and reunited later than most dogs were." Cary says that as of Sunday, May 26, 31 animals had been reunited from the Cleveland County Fairgrounds, and others from various animal shelters in the area.
McNeal is speaking between surgeries, his next to amputate a dog's infected toe. He says veterinary specialists are handling many of the most critical injuries. He's personally treated a wide array of injuries from corneal ulcerations to pieces of wood imbedded in animals. McNeal says the most significant effects may come weeks or months later, as some pets could suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) syndrome.
"Some staff members lost their homes, yet because the case load has been so overwhelming -- they're here doing their jobs and caring for animals," McNeal adds.
They're not alone. Harrington, who's lived in the area all her life, says "People have taken in people they don't know, pets they don't know. This community is giving to one another, and is very strong."
American Humane's Red Star group was invited in by local government, and their rapid deployment was made possible by many supporters and organizations, including singer Miranda Lambert's MuttNation Foundation. Other national and local agencies are also staged at or near the fairgrounds. Learn more at here.
"Helping people to recover from disasters like these is obviously important," says Cary. "But it has been our experience that by saving animals, we actually help people -- very much so."
©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services