Debra Parsons-Drake / The HSUS
By Deborah Robbins Millman, Director of Outreach, South Florida Wildlife Center
As Hurricane Irma approached South Florida Wildlife Center in Fort Lauderdale, staff and volunteers erected storm shutters, secured computers, diagnostic equipment, animal food and medicine, and placed nearly 250 wildlife patients in foster homes to ride out the storm. We closed up tight, before huddling with our own families to watch as Irma grew ever nearer and more powerful.
The day after Irma blasted through, as soon as curfews were lifted and roads re-opened, staff returned to the Center. Downed power lines made the main entrance impassable, and fallen trees and debris buried our buildings, most of which had no electricity or running water. There was no internet or phone service and we’d lost nearly all of our perishable animal food.
Staff dragged fallen limbs away from buildings, cleared debris and waded through standing water to check on our supplies. The damage was extensive. Shockingly, we quickly tallied an estimated $350,000 in losses.
Fifteen of our animal habitats were destroyed. These habitats are critically important – we rely on them to enable thousands of animals every year, representing hundreds of species, to re-acclimate to Florida temperatures and terrain and gain critical survival skills before we return them to the wild.
The commercial produce refrigerator had died, along with thousands of dollars’ worth of fresh food. Roofs and gutters on several buildings, including the hospital, were heavily damaged. Multiple air conditioning units, our commercial generator and the phone system were inoperable. Medical and diagnostic equipment was lost. And that may not be all: we won’t know the true extent of the damage until we can make a detailed inspection after the power is fully restored.
Even the downed trees that didn’t destroy buildings created issues. Many of them had provided essential shade for our animals recuperating in outdoor habitats and aviaries. Even in September, temperatures here are typically in the mid 90s; with no shade to escape the heat, our patients would become stressed and dehydrated. We began a frantic search for shade cloth so that patients who would fare best outdoors could be moved there.
We had little time to absorb the enormity of all the destruction, since almost immediately after we got back onsite, people began arriving with injured and orphaned wildlife. Before we had officially reopened, we had taken in 35 patients, ranging from hawks, to squirrels to turtles. Over the next three days, we welcomed 142 more, and the numbers keep swelling, as we bring back our animals from foster homes and welcome a constant flow of new patients.
Because the hospital had no air-conditioning, no phones and a damaged roof, we swiftly set up a temporary triage unit in the Nursery, cramming as much equipment and supplies as we could into the smaller quarters. Downed wires blocked the main gates, so we diverted traffic to the rear entrance. For several days, while we worked without telephones; questions and pleas for help poured in at all hours of the day and night via email and social media. We answered them all.
We marvel at and are humbled by the rescuers, facing their own storm losses, who brave the debris-choked roads to bring us wounded animals.
Volunteers, too, are arriving in greater numbers every day, willing to do everything from laundry to clearing brush to animal care.
The rescued animals all have unique and often amazing stories. Like the young raccoon who spent part of the storm trapped beneath a generator before the kindhearted homeowner spotted and rescued him.
And the two brown-footed boobies who escaped the storm by stowing aboard a Mexican cargo ship, ending up here in Fort Lauderdale, hungry and dehydrated.
And the young anhinga, found in someone’s backyard, thin, weak, limping and with abrasions from being buffeted about in the wind.
And the white ibis, electrocuted after colliding with off-kilter power lines.
And the dozens of squirrels catapulted from their nests, who miraculously survived the howling winds and rain.
When the heat and the destruction get to be too much, many of us take a walk through the triage unit, gaining emotional strength by viewing our fragile patients’ steady recoveries. Their spirit – and the spirit of those who rescued them and brought them to us – keeps us going.
Tough days are ahead and challenges remain, but South Florida Wildlife Center’s patients have the support of our staff and volunteers, our community, and a network of caring people across the country. They, like South Florida Wildlife Center, will recover, and be even more resilient for having survived the storm.
Deborah Robbins Millman is director of outreach at South Florida Wildlife Center in Fort Lauderdale, FL. An affiliate of The Humane Society of the United States, SFWC is the nation’s highest-intake wildlife hospital, admitting about 13,000 animals annually.