Greensburg, Kan. - When warning sirens wailed just before 10 p.m. on Friday, May 4, residents of this oil, gas and farming town sought cover, bracing themselves for a storm. What they didn't know was that, while most of them would survive the F-5 category tornado, at least 11 people and almost their entire city would succumb to the power and brutality of 205-mph winds.
GREENSBURG, KAN. — When warning sirens wailed just before 10 p.m. on Friday, May 4, residents of this oil, gas and farming town sought cover, bracing themselves for a storm. What they didn't know was that, while most of them would survive the F-5 category tornado, at least 11 people and almost their entire city would succumb to the power and brutality of 205-mph winds.
Outside help:Volunteer veterinarians from nearby cities stepped in for local DVM R.G. Skaggs, whose practice was lost.
When Mother Nature retreated, she left in her wake a path of destruction two miles wide and 25 miles long, littered with the remains of what once was a peaceful community of about 1,500.
"This is by far the worst storm I have seen. The entire town is gone. Businesses are gone; the schools are gone; the hospitals are gone. The entire community is wiped out," says LuAnn Dorman, DVM and practice owner in a neighboring Kansas community. She and other DVMs from Pratt, Dodge City, Wichita and Kingman stepped in to help area pets hurt or lost
Orphaned: This volunteer cares for a rescued calf. The 100 dogs and cats unclaimed after the storm will be housed for 60 days in an addition to the Pratt County Humane Society shelter, funded by donations honoring a Greensburg woman who died in the storm. The animals might then be available for adoption.
"I was called to Greensburg at about 2 in the morning, and I brought some people with their animals back to my clinic for treatment. Then I returned to Greensburg to help with injured and loose animals and search-and-rescue efforts," Dorman says.
The city's lone mixed-animal practitioner—Robert Skaggs, DVM—was able to evacuate all animals from his Maple Avenue clinic before it was devastated. The city's Department of Transportation building, one of the few structures left standing, would later become the city's temporary animal shelter.
"More bad weather kept coming through, so we were trying to get the animals treated, processed and out of there. They were taken to nearby veterinary clinics and humane societies. We were just trying to get them out of the path of future bad weather," says Dorman, who handled more than 30 animals through her clinic in nearby Pratt. The storm didn't discriminate. Assistance was needed for a variety of species – including cats, dogs, horses, goats, sheep, chickens, rabbits, turkeys and mules, among others, says DVM Christen Skaer, who is working to form an official state animal response team in Kansas.
"This is the first disaster we've worked. Essentially, this was trial by fire," she says of her team, made up of about 10 members.
Tornado's destructive path: Leaving an estimated 1,500 residents and 400 animals homeless, the F-5 category tornado tore through the city with wind speeds up to 205 mph, destroying 90 percent of the city.
"We haven't had anything like this in Kansas in quite a while," Skaer says of the storm. "It's completely gone. The whole town is gone. There is nothing left that isn't at least majorly damaged."
With the help of the Kansas Animal Health Department, the rescue teams set up a temporary staging area at the Dodge City Fairgrounds to administer treatment and house the animals not yet claimed. The plan is to photograph all unidentified animals and post the pictures on the department's Web site, allowing owners to search for any missing pets, explains Debra Duncan of the department's small-animal division.
Typically not involved in disaster efforts, Duncan says it is rare for the department to be involved in this type of animal care and rescue. "It is simply that the devastation is so huge, and we have the ability to help," she says.
A second staging area, where all unclaimed animals eventually will be housed, was erected in Greensburg at the transportation department building once residents were allowed back.
President Bush visited the city and declared a federal disaster area.
Despite collaborative and effective efforts to assist animals, the magnitude of the storm's impact remains unknown, Dorman says. "At this point, we don't know how many animals were lost and actually died. The whole city is just rubble."
Helping hands: Volunteer Willow Wright (left), with Kathy Wingert, wife of a local DVM, said years of living through Texas and Oklahoma tornados did not prepare her for the wreckage in Greensburg. "There could be nothing worse but a war zone," says Wright, owner of All Critters Rescue.
But animal injuries remain fairly mild, Skaer says. "There was some dehydration in cats and some injuries, but mostly they're just scared to death. They just need supporting care and TLC, really," she says.
Once the city starts to get pieced back together, Skaer says she plans to try to improve rescue resources for residents with animals in times of disaster. Working with Red Cross and other shelter facilities to try and incorporate options for animals is a primary focus.
"I think as a country, we need to concentrate on housing and evacuation procedures that involve animals. We need to consider animals when initiating emergency management efforts," Skaer says.
Homeward bound: Chelsea, a Schnauzer-pug mix, was found sitting among the ruined remains of the child's bedroom where she slept at night in her home. Pratt County Humane Society Executive Director Lance Noakes cared for the dog until her family retrieved her.
Identifying animals is the biggest challenge when leading rescue efforts following disaster, Dorman says. She encourages veterinarians to remind their clients about the importance of tags, collars and microchipping so pets can be identified and reunited with their owners.
"Always have extra food and water for pets," she further cautions. "And when a tornado warning is out, heed them. Take them seriously. If you prepare and take cover and nothing happens, you are out nothing."