Among the first places to fall victim to the fury of Hurricane Irma were the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the U.S. territorial Virgin Islands, where the storm decimated homes of people and animals alike.
Kent Knight, who with his wife, Sherry, founded the organization Pet Search in Washington, left for the islands Sept. 12 to aid in efforts to clean up and repair animal shelters and arrange to have pets transported to Virgina Beach, Va., through the Pets With Wings program based in St. Thomas. From there, Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team will fly pets to various locations, including Washington County.
“We’ve been through tropical storms and Category 1 hurricanes,” Sherry Knight said. “It was no big deal.”
Tropical storms have winds of 39 to 73 mph, and Category 1 hurricanes, 74 to 95 mph. Irma, however, was a Category 5 storm when it struck St. Thomas, U.S.V.I., with blasts of 210 mph.
Private planes were taking off and landing from the St. Thomas airport as of Friday, and commercial airline service was expected to be restored this week.
The Knights hope about 100 dogs and 60 cats from Humane Society of St. Thomas, plus 30 dogs and an equal number of cats from Animal Care Center of St. John, can be evacuated by air once they are approved and innoculated by a veterinarian known only to Sherry Knight as “Dr. Michelle.”
The Humane Society of St. Thomas experienced no fatalities among its animals, and it had a generator up and running to power-wash kennels and supply water. Before that, buckets of water were being pulled up by hand from a cistern. Dog kennels and offices remained under roof, but in the cattery, a wall had collapsed.
“He has been at the shelter every single day and he’s been whacking away with a chain saw,” Knight said of her husband, who drives six to seven miles to get to a wi-fi hotspot so they can communicate.
The 10-year-old shelter in St. Thomas was constructed according to codes enacted after Hurricane Marilyn in September 1995. The shelter has a mandatory open-door policy, meaning it cannot turn any animals away. Because so many residents are homeless, a large number of pets are being taken to shelters.
The Animal Care Center in St. John was destroyed, according to Sherry Knight.
Damage estimates in the U.S. Virgin Islands alone have reached billions of dollars, and a news report on National Public Radio spoke of flattened utility poles and other structures that left 90 percent of St. Thomas without power.
Although animals typically cannot be transported by air cargo from the heat of May through September, rules are being waived to allow pets to be evacuated from the Virgin Islands in climate-controlled cargo planes, Sherry Knight said.
Three dogs evacuated from the U.S. Virgin Islands as Irma approached arrived via commercial airlines: Bella, who is recovering from a dislocated hip, Gracie and Baxter, all of whom are in foster care, but available for adoption. A fourth dog, Tuck, a Rottweiler mix, arrived from St. Thomas via cargo in April.
Pet Search is one of eight rescues affiliated with the Pets With Wings program.
“If we have to make several flights, we certainly will make several flights,” Sherry Knight said.
Through the efforts of PAART, Pet Search also received seven dogs from Texas who were moved from shelters to accommodate dogs that were rescued from Hurricane Harvey in hopes that dogs lost or abandoned during the catastrophic floods could be housed locally in an attempt to reunite them with their owners.