Trish Witek pauses in the middle of the cavernous North Carolina Fairgrounds pavilion, echoing with barks from rows of caged dogs. 

Around her, a steady stream of volunteers rush through the overheated space, hauling heavy bags of dog food, blankets and jugs of water for the forty-two dogs and forty cats rescued when Hurricane Florence hit their shelter. 

In a matter of days, the dogs here went from a normal life in a shelter waiting for adoption to an experience similar to many human hurricane survivors. 

“They thought they would be okay with the storm,” Witek says, “They were going to be and then the roof caved in and the water came in.” 

Pearl, a Great Pyrenees that was one of the animal
Pearl, a Great Pyrenees that was one of the animals rescued from an animal shelter in Carteret County, N.C., looks out from her cage in the Holshouser Building on the N.C. State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, Sept. 17, 2018.

Before Hurricane Katrina hit the southern United States in 2005, there were few procedures in place for pet rescues during hurricanes. But when many evacuees would not leave their rapidly flooding homes for shelters, knowing their beloved pets would not be allowed inside, attitudes changed.

Even as bands of rain from Hurricane Florence lashed central North Carolina Sunday, fifty local volunteers worked until late at night taking the displaced animals off the truck that made the 12-hour journey west from the collapsed animal shelter and into a safe space. 

“In these times, it’s just nice to see everyone coming together,” she says. 

While the state organized the effort, the spontaneous response was entirely volunteer, with the hurricane introducing many people to pet care for the first time. 

“I’ve got people who have probably never cleaned a cage before. I’ve got people who have never walked a dog before but it’s just – who needs to do what and where the need is,” says Mollie Ball of Cause for Paws North Carolina.

Sarah Montoya, second from right, tends to a dog i
Sarah Montoya, second from right, tends to a dog in the Holshouser Building on the N.C. State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, Sept. 17, 2018.

Witek – who helped process 800 dogs during Hurricane Floyd – says the group also sends dog food and water to rural counties in dire need after a natural disaster. 

“For many people, the dogs are all they have,” Witek, who works with the Raleigh rescue groups coordinating this effort, says. 

“They want to keep their pets, their pets right now are all they have under these stressful situations,” Witek says. “If we can help them have a little bit of normalcy under an extremely stressful time – then everybody wins.” 

The dogs are understandably upset – and still haven’t completed their journey. Each one will be sent to a local shelter, where Witek says they will be given new caregivers. 

The entirely volunteer-based group works off of donations, mainly fueled by a Facebook page with a link for the animal rescue group for disaster relief care. 

“We are so blessed with the donations the local community has brought out,” Witek said. “We need food and it has been non-stop, the amount of food and water and paper towels and people wanting to come out and walk the dogs.” 

“You’ve got to help the dogs,” Wendy from Raleigh, North Carolina, said after she dropped off the group’s entire donation wish list. Joined by her friend Julie from Morrisville, North Carolina, she said they heard about the need through Facebook. “We like dogs more than most people so this was an easy call to come over here today.” 

Representatives from local shelters walk the aisles, carefully assessing the animals to take back to their own shelters. 

“We’ll let them acclimate for the next two weeks to make sure no one is looking for them and then hopefully adopt them out to good homes,” says Doll. 

Despite the noise and the sweltering temperatures, the hard work of loading and unloading, Ball says the effort is incredibly worthwhile at times like these. 

“We all have a passion for dogs and cats and it’s just a matter of making sure they’re safe,” she says, “and hopefully they’ll have a good life going forward after this trauma.”