UF played key role in Hurricane Irma relief

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As Hurricane Irma approached Florida the first week in September, different groups within the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine rallied to provide assistance to pet owners, veterinarians and animals of many species throughout the state.

Responses began with preparations prior to the storm, and continued during and after it with administration, faculty, staff and students involved in various aspects of the collective effort.

“I’m so proud of the way in which our college actively participated in providing assistance to so many groups and animals affected by Hurricane Irma,” said the college’s dean, James W. Lloyd, D.V.M., Ph.D.

“We were able to provide invaluable help to veterinarians and others in the veterinary medical profession who were adversely impacted by this storm, as well as to anxious pet owners in our own community and those areas more directly hit,” Lloyd added.

The UF Veterinary Hospital provided continual 24/7 emergency services before, during and immediately after Hurricane Irma to pets, horses and wildlife, serving as a valuable patient care resource in light of closures of nearly every other veterinary specialty and emergency hospital in the state. College officials said that Sept. 11, the day Irma swept through North Central Florida, was one of the busiest 24-hour periods in the history of the Small Animal Hospitals intensive care unit.

In addition, the UF Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service, the college’s disaster response and technical rescue team — which deploys at the request of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services or area agencies and works closely with the Florida Veterinary Medical Association — carried out several different missions relating to the storm.

As Hurricane Irma approached on Sept. 9, the UF VETS team traveled to Bushnell and picked up 100 dog crates for delivery to Alachua County Animal Services’ operations to support pet-friendly shelters in the area. The team also investigated complaints of abandoned horses at Florida Horse Park in Ocala and provided an assessment of the situation.

After the hurricane came through, the team coordinated an ambitious rescue of five horses stranded in floodwaters in High Springs. This rescue involved multiple state agencies and the National Guard. Once extricated from the flooded area, the horses were taken to the UF Large Animal Hospital, where they continue to be monitored.

The UF VETS team made its way south soon after the storm, with one unit stopping in the Kissimmee area to assist in fact-finding missions and help area agencies document and meet various needs.

Then the group spent almost a full week in the Florida Keys, providing patient care and situational assessments relating to animals and veterinary medical practices damaged by the storm. The team worked with the FVMA and other groups, including the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, local businesses and veterinary clinics in Key West to provide assistance as needed.

“Our patients included dogs that had been attacked by neighboring dogs, a diabetic dog whose insulin supply was running low, several dermatology cases that were exacerbated by the heat and stress from the storm, and even a dog that had found and ingested spilled rat poison as a result of a cabinet that fell over during the storm,” said Brandi Phillips, a UF VETS team member.

“Our students, along with our two veterinarian team members, Dr. Larry Garcia and Dr. May-Li Cuypers, saw more than a dozen patients each day that we were there,” Phillips said. “Members of the community, including local veterinarians doing home repairs and waiting for power to turn back on to their clinics, were extremely grateful for the UF VETS team’s support.”

Shelters and rescue groups in Florida and out of state benefited from the expertise of UF’s Shelter Medicine group, which helped support the Alachua County Humane Society’s efforts to move animals out of shelters in harm’s way. Additionally, the shelter medicine team and associated volunteers assisted in distributing donated vaccines and medications for 800 animals to the Humane Society for animals the group was evacuating from rural shelters and delivered supplies to shelters in Taylor and Suwanee counties so they could care for animals arriving after the storm. The UF group also helped arrange animal relocation transports to Chicago, Atlanta and South Carolina.

At the request of Florida’s State Animal Response Coalition, this team worked through difficult communications networks to contact each of Florida’s 155 animal shelters to ensure they were connected with their county’s emergency operations centers and getting the help they needed. Shelter medicine faculty also provided information via social media and blog posts to assist sheltering and rescue groups accepting displaced animals.

Members of the UF Aquatic Animal Health team assisted with three separate calls to rescue several displaced manatees found in different bodies of water. A lone manatee was rescued from a canal in Bayport, and several from a pond in Melbourne. The rescues took place in collaboration with agencies including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Sea World, the Brevard County Zoo and local law enforcement.

Michael Walsh, D.V.M., an assistant professor with the program, also assisted in an inter-agency manatee rescue facilitated by Atlantis in Paradise Island, Bahamas on Sept. 23. The wild manatee had been found in high seas and was thought to have been displaced from his home range due to Hurricane Irma. After his assessment and treatment, the manatee is in critical condition and being monitored at Atlantis’ Animal Rescue and Care facility in Paradise Island.

“As the founder of the college disaster response efforts, it is truly gratifying to see the efforts of everyone who have trained and planned over the years come together so well under such trying circumstances,” said John Haven, the college’s executive director and UF VETS team director.

“Some of our people deployed before even their own homes were completely resituated, working for the Greater Gator Good.”