Veterinarians dive in to aid Harvey victims, battle personal effects themselves

Veterinarians dive in to aid Harvey victims, battle personal effects themselves

Practitioners providing relief and rescue services say the needs will continue for months to come.
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Sep 05, 2017

A pet displaced by Hurricane Harvey taking shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Katie Eick.)They call them the garbage can pups, because that’s how they arrived at the emergency shelter.

“The garbage can idea turned out to be pretty ingenious,” says Katie Eick, DVM, pointing out the resourcefulness of a pet owner in an emergency situation. Three dogs, not enough crates, rising water, little time: put them in the can and head for the shelter.

The pups were among the thousands—some estimates say close to a million—animals affected by the record-breaking fury of Hurricane Harvey. Dr. Eick, who owns South by South Mobile Veterinary Service in Houston, says that like many others, she was not expecting the severity of the storm. “I did not realize until Sunday [Aug. 27] when I saw pictures of the flooding downtown that this was serious,” she says. “I didn’t even go to the grocery store before the storm hit, thinking it was going to be a false alarm.”

A pet and its owner sheltering in the convention center in downtown Houston. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Eick.)She and her family escaped unscathed, and without waiting to catch her breath Dr. Eick began looking for ways to help. She arrived at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, where the impact really began to sink in.

On the first night, as waterlogged families arrived with pets in tow, some of them were turned away. Unwilling to leave their pets outside alone, families remained in the parking lot as the rain continued. The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) act, passed in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, mandates that states provide emergency shelter for evacuated pets, but in the confusion of a large-scale disaster the plans aren’t always immediately implemented. City officials quickly reversed course, and the next day the convention center designated one large entire area for pets.

It filled quickly. “We had 9,000 people show up overnight,” Dr. Eick says, marveling at the cavernous room behind her.

During natural disasters, overburdened animal control officials often rely on private organizations to help with rescue and shelter services. At the convention center, Dr. Eick and six other veterinary volunteers working in shifts assisted Houston’s municipal shelter organization BARC, Friends for Life, and Austin Pets Alive with the daunting job of triaging hundreds of pets, some suffering stress-related gastrointestinal (GI) distress, many with severe injuries.

Stockpiled food and supplies for pets at the Houston convention center. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Eick.) “The hardest case was a dog fight case that happened on Friday just as the rains were starting, so they weren’t able to get vet care before being evacuated out on Sunday,” says Dr. Eick. “We saw him on Monday and he was already so sick with a body temp of 95 degrees. The wounds were severely necrotic, and I assume he had penetrating wounds into his abdomen. Sadly, even after aggressive IV fluids and antibiotics and supportive care, he did not make it. My heart just broke for these people who lost their home and now their pet.”

To streamline the volunteer process, Dr. Eick created the website harveyvolunteervets.com for veterinarians, technicians and assistants who wanted to offer their time and expertise. “I am asking that people who do sign up check the site regularly as the shifts may change if the shelters are consolidated and as we get calls for help from local animal shelters who will be taking in abandoned pets,” Dr. Eick says. “The shifts are just the bare minimum! If a shift looks full we will not turn anyone away! They should email, call or text me to let me know that they would like to work a shift that looks full and we can add them.”

In San Diego, Sarah LaMere, DVM, PhD, watched the news with a growing sense of sadness and fear. As a native Texan, she has family members in the Houston area, and so does her husband. “My parents grew up there. My roots are there. I think it’s impossible for me to go about my daily life without doing something tangible to help,” she says. Texas is granting emergency licenses for out-of-state veterinary professionals to provide immediate and relief help while the state assesses the long term consequences. LaMere applied for and received an emergency license within 24 hours. She joined Dr. Eick in Houston on September 1.

While the veterinary community is racing to provide assistance to storm victims, many veterinarians face the double whammy of helping while themselves suffering loss.

Miles from the downtown convention center, Christie Cornelius, DVM, is feeding her dogs in the Air BnB she has been staying in since Aug. 28. On Sunday, Aug. 27, she worriedly watched as a creek near her home started to overflow its banks. The next day, as the inches of water turned to feet, she and her partner had to evacuate their four dogs and four cats with whatever they could gather in 15 minutes. “We drove back to our place for the first time a couple days ago,” she told dvm360 on Friday. “There were a couple feet of standing water in the house.” Her house is uninhabitable, but she hasn’t had time to process the next steps.

Instead, she’s spent most of her time managing the staff at Last Wishes, her mobile hospice and end-of-life care veterinary practice. With some of Houston’s largest emergency practices such as Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists badly damaged, the wait at the few remaining ER practices is extremely long. “Those ER clinicians are working two to three days in a row” without a break, Dr. Cornelius says, and there’s a long list of pets in need of euthanasia who can’t access it. So her practice goes to them.

Medical supplies, especially GI meds, fluids and pain meds, are already in short supply. “Veterinarians as a whole—this is what we do,” says Dr. Cornelius. “We burn through our own supplies and resources.” Although many of the roads reopened last week, UPS was waiting to resume deliveries over security concerns. Until that ends, hospitals and distribution centers relied on private individuals and companies to bring in supplies.

The need to do what she can has kept Dr. Cornelius from thinking too much about what the future holds for her. “You’re in survival mode right now,” she says. “All you do is the best you can, and you rest when you can. Sometimes you just have to stop what you’re doing and go cry.” She notes how large animal veterinary practitioners are so overwhelmed they haven’t even had a chance to stop and give many updates. “They have been running themelves ragged trying to get to horses who need rescue,” she says. When the updates come, they aren’t going to be good.

A view of Dr. Semira Mancill's property. She is still not sure how badly her property has been damaged. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Mancill.)Outside of Houston in Cleveland, Texas, equine veterinarian Semira Mancill, MS, DVM, DACT, is still not sure how badly her property has been damaged. “Thankfully my family and I are safe,” she says, but “the floodwaters have not receded enough to get a full damage assessment. We have many colleagues who that have lost everything, both at home and at their hospitals. It’s going to be a marathon of putting the pieces back together.”

Having weathered two previous hurricanes, Dr. Mancill evacuated 12 hours before the rains arrived. “I’ll never regret that decision,” she says. “I will always be shocked with the devastation this storm has caused to the Houston and Southeast Texas communities.” For her clients, she says, the greatest needs are animal feed, medicine and medical supplies. She suggests that people organize donations through the AVMA, the Texas Veterinary Medical Association, the Texas Equine Veterinary Association, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

Despite an end to the rain, the struggle in Texas is just beginning. Insurance adjusters and emergency housing and grant disbursement take time. “What you see on TV—that’s just scratching the surface,” Dr. Cornelius says. “In order to understand what’s going on, you have to be there. I’ve had people all over the country asking what can I do to help, but we don’t even know yet.”

As the community has leaned on its veterinarians in time of crisis, our colleagues in Texas will be leaning on us in the weeks and months to come. “We don’t want this to be a blip on the news,” says Dr. Mancill. “This will be a long run of picking up the pieces and rebuilding. Don’t forget about the people here who have lost so much and will need help for months to come.”

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang is a certified veterinary journalist, a regular contributing writer for a number of publications, author of the memoir All Dogs Go to Kevin, and creator of the popular blog Pawcurious.com.

Hurricane Harvey in Houston, TX

I spend the last three days volunteering at the Houston SPCA. In addition to the huge numbers of homeless pets from all over the greater Houston area, there is a huge number of animals of all types being evacuated from the Beaumont/Port Arthur area. Huge numbers of dogs, cats, and horses. The Executive Director of the Houston SPCA Patti Mercer is doing a beautiful job of negotiating all of the different considerations bringing these animals to Houston. I saw volunteers from the Connecticut, New Jersey, Oregon, Los Angeles, and all over the Gulf Coast helping to sort out all of the animals. It was amazing to watch this extraordinary activity at a shelter.