Rising to the occasion/Veterinarians were among the first to aid Hurricane Charley victims


PUNTA GORDA, FLA.-Seeing mobile homes twisted around trees and cars tipped over like children's toys in the aftermath of hurricane Charley was enough incentive for Dr. Dena Baker of Naples to evacuate before the season's third major storm ravaged the state.

PUNTA GORDA, FLA.—Seeing mobile homes twisted around trees and cars tipped over like children's toys in the aftermath of hurricane Charley was enough incentive for Dr. Dena Baker of Naples to evacuate before the season's third major storm ravaged the state.

Rescuers Dr. Blair Jones (right) and Anna Ellis, CVT, from VMAT Team No. 3 treated this patient for shock following a trilogy of hurricanes that pummeled the southeast.

Baker owns a mobile veterinary clinic (Mobile Pet Vet) and says she wasn't willing to risk losing everything, especially after witnessing Charley—the worst storm she has seen in her 18 years in the state.

"There are areas of Florida you cannot find gas in order to evacuate," Baker says. "Some people couldn't leave even if they wanted to."

Baker helped animals and residents after Charley, stating that the area the hurricane covered was massive and the damage immense.

"We crawled into a window of a house Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) team members had told us had animals trapped inside," Baker says. "We brought out a cat and two dogs."

Baker, Dr. Shelley Gothard, Dr. Tonya Loreman and veterinary technician Ann Dee Yurick traveled to Punta Gorda to help where they were needed.

Dr. Dena Baker

"It was exhausting. No one knew where to go or who to talk to," Yurick says. "The most popular feature of our mobile clinic was the bathroom. There wasn't anywhere for people to go."

Even as Baker was evacuating, she told DVM Newsmagazine that she has a generator and would be helping people again as necessary after Ivan hit.

Baker was making the drive out of Ivan's path with five cats and a dog. Two of the animals traveling with the veterinarian are hers; the others were "various refugees" from various hurricanes.

Floridians might be recovering from the storm for months to come.

"Hopefully veterinarians and residents can start making the necessary repairs to their clinics and return to some normalcy," says Dr. Jim Hamilton, leader of Veterinary Medical Assistance Team 3 (VMAT) from North Carolina.

"We care about the veterinary community and helped out where we were needed, but now local veterinarians have everything under control," Hamilton says.

Dr. Jim Hamilton

Hamilton's team helped coordinate care for displaced and injured animals during Charley and was on standby for Frances.

"We were staged in a Holiday Inn along the highway for five days," Hamilton says. "We got the go ahead to go back home though. Local veterinarians were able to handle everything from Frances and Ivan."

Charley was the first in a series of major assaults on Florida, leaving an estimated 30 veterinary hospitals disabled weeks after the initial cleanup, says Don Schaefer, executive director, Florida Veterinary Medical Association (FVMA).

Despite their own economic and emotional distress, many veterinarians put their affairs on hold to help people and animals in greater need.

Larry Murphy, DVM, and his wife, Elizabeth, who is also a veterinarian at Your Pet's Vet Veterinary Clinic in Lehi Acres, loaded up their vehicle with dog food, snacks and other necessities for people whose homes were damaged severely from the hurricane.

Dr. E. Welch Agnew

"We came to a street that had been hit hard by Charley, and a woman that had clearly had been through the ringer told us the next street over was in worse shape," Murphy says. "I couldn't believe the acts of human kindness. People came out of the woodwork to help complete strangers."

"Veterinarians gave of themselves without being asked," Schaefer says. "They are really model citizens. Edington and Murphy represent the best in veterinary medicine," Schaefer adds.

Murphy modestly credits other veterinarians and their efforts after Charley and chuckles at Schaefer's complements on his efforts.

"It was a very emotional situation," Murphy says. "There were so many people that lost everything in Charlotte County. "There were many elderly people that had to surrender their pets because they couldn't care for them. This had to be one of the most difficult things for these people."

The Florida Veterinary Medical Association

Murphy says planning was much better for Charley than it was for Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, but there was still a lot of devastation.

"There were 8,000 to 10,000 animals displaced with Andrew," Murphy says. "That wasn't the case this time.

"As soon as veterinarians knew their staff and families were OK, you immediately saw care and character of veterinarians helping," Murphy says."The veterinary community really shined."

Baker brought gallon jugs of water to the Pampered Pet Health Center, which was the only operational veterinary clinic in Port Charlotte directly after the hurricane, Murphy says.

Baker and her technician, AnnDee Nurick, collected a van full of supplies from a local Publix grocery store and gave it to residents and the Salvation Army.

"We were so happy to bring food to people," Baker says. "They were grateful for food, but I'm sure it was monotonous eating nonperishable food all of the time."

"We were told about a Sandhill Crane whose wing had been torn off, so we found the bird but determined that its injuries were too bad and had to euthanize it," she adds.

Baker says that they were told of a kitten that was trapped in a storage trailer that had a 106-degree fever.

"One of the search and rescue team members is fostering the kitten, and I'm sure will adopt it if it is not claimed," Baker says.

All of the major injuries were transferred to Pampered Pets Veterinary Clinic.

Dr. E. Welch Agnew of Pinellas County Animal Services, near Clearwater, treated animals in the county's mobile unit.

"Communication was bad and the heat was huge," Agnew says. "When the animals came into the mobile unit, which was air-conditioned, they seemed to be a little more relaxed."

Dr. Jerry Edington

"There were a few fractures, some eye problems from debris and miscellaneous minor injuries," Hamilton says.

Animals suffered from dehydration, vomiting and diarrhea that was stress related, Agnew says.

"We have about 3,000 kennel spaces available in the county and 400,000 animals," Agnew says. "I hope we don't have to deal with anything more aggressive for a long time."

Agnew spent two days at what he calls ground zero of Charley. The Pinellas County operation was there for a week.

"We spent a good amount of time taking care of people," Agnew says. The animal care was so well-prepared, he adds, "that I felt really bad for the people who had nowhere to go.

"This next storm is going to make Charley look like a teenage sock hop," Agnew says. "With each storm I think people become better prepared, but they haven't had time after Charley and Frances."

Veterinarians went above and beyond what any citizens were expected to do, sources say.

"I know there were animals in need but the people's needs had first priority," says Dr. Jerry Edington, an associate veterinarian at Sunnybrook Animal and Bird Hospital in Englewood. "We helped a family move out of a demolished home the day after Charley hit, and we could hear dogs barking in the surrounding empty houses. I would be interested to know whether the VMAT people were able to help more animals than we were."

"The hospital sits just north of the disaster area. We were without electricity for a couple of days, but that's the extent of our damage," Edington says.

Sunnybrook Animal and Bird Hospital served as a safe haven for pets whose owners had severe property damage and were unable to care for them. The hospital boarded the pets free of charge and also provided medical care for the animals in need.

"We had about 30 dogs and cats boarding here at one point," Edington says.

Veterinarians say one of the biggest problems during and directly after Charley was the lack of communication.

The damage was remarkable and communication was nil for a long time, Agnew says.

"Since we had no communication with people in Punta Gorda, my wife and I loaded up our SUV with supplies and made the 40-minute drive."

VMAT 3 was well staffed, headed by Hamilton, a North Carolina veterinarian.

"VMAT seemed to really have a good plan in place and had foster homes ready and arranged for the Suncoast Humane Society (SHS) has been established as the Humane Society of the United States' (HSUS) staging area for Charlotte County companion animal disaster relief, Hamilton says.

"We were in Port Charlotte to help out the situation and when it seemed as if everything was under control by the local veterinarians we left."

Hamilton credits the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Animal Control of Port Charlotte for all of the prompt and vital work they did.

"It was a great comfort to have all of the national organizations here," Murphy says. "They did exactly what their mission statement says."

SHS transferred all adoptable animals from the facility to shelters in Tampa, Bradenton and Fort Lauderdale in order to clear the shelter to make room for the animals impacted by Hurricane Charley.

Approximately 612 animals passed through the HSUS facilities in Charlotte County, at the facilities in Carmelita Park, the Promenades Mall and Suncoast Humane Society, whose staff and volunteers were essential partners in our work there. HSUS also worked with the Humane Society of Manatee County to shelter and treated about 120 more animals, which were transferred from DeSoto and Hardee, rural counties that suffered massive damage. Due to the enormous response, at presstime, the shelter had temporarily stopped taking names and phone numbers from people willing to foster animals for this effort.

"There were such an overwhelming number of foster homes and veterinarians that helped."

Frances' relentless path through the state during Labor Day weekend left 2 million people without electricity. The amount of additional damage caused to veterinary practices was undetermined by the FVMA at presstime.

Murphy was preparing his clinic for the third major hurricane, Ivan, which affected Alabama and the panhandle of Florida Sept. 16.

"It's the first time I have ever had to board up my clinic." he says.

Hamilton and the VMAT team are waiting to hear if they again will be needed to assist the veterinary community and residents.

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