Lizzie’s hurricane finally ended on a bright September day in a Washington townhouse, four weeks and 1,400 miles from the floodwaters that overwhelmed her Houston neighborhood in August.
“Welcome home, Lizzie-poo,” whispered Kayla Robinson, 26, as she carried the still-quivering Chihuahua mix across the threshold to a new life of plentiful food, squeaky toys and two dog beds of her very own. It was a comfy end to a journey that started at an emergency animal shelter in Texas, spanned nine states and touched foster families and rescue volunteers in five cities.
As a historically destructive hurricane season grinds on, Lizzie is one of hundreds of displaced pets now pouring through a pop-up pipeline established between storm-ravaged areas from Texas to Puerto Rico and urban centers throughout the country, including Washington. Here, the flow of Harvey-, Irma- and, soon, Maria-dogs is reshaping the local rescue landscape. Even as Hurricane Nate landed in Mississippi this weekend, groups were radically expanding their capacity to receive, shelter and place a stream of animals expected to continue for months.
"We're upping all of it — fundraising, volunteers, donated supplies, space," said Colleen Learch, spokesman for the Arlington-based Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, one of several organizations on the receiving end of the onslaught. Last month, the group took over a defunct boarding kennel in Falls Church that can accommodate up to 200 of the animals it has been taking from the hurricane zones.
There has long been a supply-and-demand relationship between parts of the South, where spay-and-neuter traditions are weak, and adoption-crazy population centers such as Washington, New Jersey, Chicago and Seattle. But the hurricane bulge has vastly boosted the flow, and it will continue to grow. Many of the pets abandoned in Texas will never be claimed. Some families struggling to rebuild will surrender yet more animals to shelters or simply turn them loose, free to breed on the streets.
“There will be a puppy and kitten boom around Christmas,” Learch predicted.
Lizzie’s trek out of Texas illustrates the refugee railroad that has sprung up to move the animals northward.
She wasn’t named Lizzie when, a few weeks after Harvey struck, the scrawny brown dog was one of 30 brought one day to a shelter set up in an empty Houston grocery store. Residents, heading back to damaged homes and overwhelmed, were surrendering their pets. Without asking questions, shelter workers took her in and named her Nala. A volunteer veterinarian found her, underfed and testing positive for heartworms.
"She was very sweet but looked like she'd had a hard life," said Clare Callison, the head of Pets Alive, the San Antonio rescue group running the shelter.
Later that day, she was on the four-hour drive to San Antonio. Twice a week, Pets Alive volunteers make the trip to the hurricane zone, using RVs, SUVs and an old school bus to fetch animals from the shelters. The group’s foster network has doubled since August, and one of the new volunteers, Lori Maxi, a stay-at-home mom, took Nala for five days.
“She trembled all the way home,” said Maxi, who is now on her fifth hurricane foster. “My kids absolutely adored her.”
On Sept. 21, a San Antonio paralegal named Carlos Uresti Jr. loaded Nala and 72 other pets for the long ride north. Uresti, who has been caring for stray dogs since he was 14, fitted a 24-foot race-car trailer with racks for animal crates and a rooftop air-conditioning unit that he runs off a generator in the back of his pickup. Since Harvey, he and two assistants have put 21,000 miles on the rig on rescue runs as far as Spokane, Wash.
The drive to Arlington took almost 47 hours, partly because walking the dogs every four hours takes a three-hour stop. But they also detoured to Memphis for several hours to get the AC fixed. “No way I was going to let it get that hot back there,” Uresti said.
When they finally pulled up outside Arlington's Dogma Bakery on a Saturday evening, more than 50 foster volunteers were waiting, all arranged by Lucky Dog Animal Rescue. The group has taken more than 200 hurricane-affected pets, putting out calls on social media to expand its volunteer list to 1,300 and holding weekly mass adoption events. Old Towne Pet Resort is one of the local kennels making space available to animals that don't get a foster family.
"We've learned a lot about disaster response," said Lucky Dog Executive Director Mirah Horowitz, a former Supreme Court clerk who founded the group in 2009.
This ballooning of Washington’s rescue scene began before Harvey even made landfall. A week in advance, based on experience with Hurricane Katrina, animal welfare groups knew to clear shelter space to make room for the rush.
Washington's Humane Rescue Alliance, which has taken in more than 150 hurricane animals, emptied its kennels as the storm approached by holding a free adoption weekend, with the fees of up to $250 paid by Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer and his wife, Erica May-Scherzer, an alliance board member. The event placed more than 150 animals in four days.
“We were hoping to draw attention to the cause as much as anything,” said May-Scherzer, who has been an animal activist since her days bottle-feeding injured squirrels as a child in Colorado. “There’s going to be a need for quite some time.”
In Arlington, Horowitz carried one animal after another from the noisy trailer: Queenie, Stardust, Harper Lee. One of the waiting volunteers, Kevin McCormack, reached his fingers into the cage labeled “Nala” and tickled the cowering head of the dog he would take to his home in Annandale. The IT consultant and his wife have fostered more than 40 dogs in recent years, some for days, some for weeks, depending on how long it takes to find a permanent home.
The next day, after a bath and a night with his own two Chihuahuas, McCormack drove Nala to a Petco in Rockville, where more than 90 Lucky Dog animals were displayed for adoption. The sidewalk was jammed with mixed beagles, boxers, terriers and labs, each led by a volunteer, most surrounded by potential parents. The smaller dogs, always in high demand in urban areas, generated the most interest.
Kayla Robinson, a recent law-school graduate starting a job as a government attorney, had seen Nala’s profile online. She had failed to get little dogs at previous adoption events, so this time she arrived with an application already filled out. Her mother ran to submit it while Robinson parked the car.
“There were already other people interested in her when we finally found her,” Robinson said. “But I knew she was the dog for me.”
It took a few days for Lucky Dog to interview Robinson, conduct a home visit and approve the adoption. McCormack kept Nala, then drove her to the group’s Arlington office the following Friday. The storefront was packed to the ceiling with thousands of pounds of donated dog food and supplies ready for shipment to Puerto Rico. Lucky Dog expects its first flight of stray dogs from the island within a week or two.
“Hi, baby,” Robinson cooed when she arrived, taking the dog from McCormack, the last transfer in a chain of custody that finally led from hurricane to haven.
Robinson fished a collar from her bag and put it around the tiny neck. “Lizzie,” read the dangling tag.
Her new name.
They got in Robinson’s car and drove the final 12 miles, at long last, to her new life.