A wiggly black dog named Speedy almost escaped his crate and darted across the tarmac, sending a few humans scrambling as the cacophony of yaps continued to nearly drown out the booming, whirling sound of jets at one of the Bahamas’ hurricane-battered airports.
“They’re a bit shaken up,” said Elizabeth “Tip” Burrows, the executive director of the Humane Society of Grand Bahama.
It’s understandable. The 83 dogs and 86 cats in individual gray crates getting loaded into a plane had just survived a Category 5 hurricane that sent a roaring river into the Humane Society’s shelter on Sept. 2. Fueled by a 20-foot storm surge, the water burst in, stunning the six staffers who stayed behind to watch after the animals and forcing them to swim for their lives.
Almost 115 cats and dogs died. Shelter employees had to scramble and hide in the ceiling before the water receded enough for them to swim out of the building for safety two hours later, Burrows said.
“No matter how much you think you’re prepared...” Burrows trailed off, standing in the shade of the plane wing and watching her employees load her “babies” into crates bound for no-kill shelters in the US.
The Humane Society shouldn’t have flooded like it did. Although it’s near the ocean in Freeport, the only animal shelter on Grand Bahama Island is elevated and has weathered its fair share of intense storms since it opened its doors in 1968.
“I don’t know,” Burrows said. “We had no idea we would get that much storm surge at our shelter. We just didn't know.”
It will be impossible for her to forget the mad rush to get to the shelter once she saw the SOS messages (she flagged down a garbage truck for a ride) and what she found when she got there.
Many of the dogs who died trapped in their cages had been there for a while. They were part of the staff family, she said. Of the animals who died, 55 dogs and 9 cats belonged to families who were forced to leave them behind because the emergency shelters wouldn’t allow pets.
“I really hope this forces our government to change the rules,” Burrows said. “People shouldn’t have to leave their pets behind when they evacuate. We ended up losing some of those pets.”
Some of the animals who survived had saltwater burns on their faces. Others need medical attention that the destroyed shelter cannot provide, especially since many of the employees lost their own homes and are trying to piece together their lives.
Burrows knows it’s for the best to send the nearly 170 animals to the states to other shelters and hopefully new families, but it’s bittersweet.
“They’re my babies,” she said. “But after what they went through, they deserve a chance to get out and find a loving home.”
Thanks to a now-viral GoFundMe campaign and organizations like International Fund for Animal Welfare, GreaterGood.org, and Wings of Rescue, which is flying them to the states, the hurricane animal survivors will be resettled. The dogs are now going to live at the Halo No-Kill Rescue Center in Florida, while the cats are going on to St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in New Jersey.
Although Wings of Rescue has been flying in animal food and welfare supplies over the past few days, Wednesday’s mission was the charity’s first animal evacuation so far.
On Friday, 10 more dogs were also evacuated out of Freeport.
“This gives us a chance to assess the damage and figure out how to go forward,” Burrows said.
The dogs range in age from 3-month-old puppies to seniors. They’re mostly mutts, “potcakes,” as Bahamians say, with names like Mama, Speedy, Mila, and Karl.
Speedy, fittingly, is a “bolt risk,” according to a note that was scrawled across the duct tape on his crate and his nearly successful escape attempt.
Burrows stayed until the last of the crates was loaded onto the plane and the barking became muffled.
“I’ve been doing this for 19 years,” she choked up, trailing off again.
Now, like most of her nation, she has to figure out how to start over and begin to rebuild.
But Burrows doesn’t expect to be empty for long.
“Think of all the pets that are lost or got left behind,” she said.