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They helped rescue animals after Harvey; now they’re doing the same during Irma

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — After spending Friday and Saturday packing 25 dogs and nine cats into flight crates to be flown away from Hurricane Irma, Mike Merrill and his wife, Kathy, began to weather-proof their St. Johns County home on Sunday.

The sky was gunmetal gray all day, two to three inches of rain soaked the ground and the wind gusted up to 36 mph, courtesy of a strong nor’easter that gave an early taste of what Irma would bring late Sunday night and early Monday morning. By noon, the first bands of Irma reached into Flagler and St. Johns counties, and a tornado warning was posted for St. Augustine, the historic city on the northeast Florida coast.

“I’m doing what I should have done three days ago,” Merrill said after he’d nailed plywood across a front window of his five-bedroom home in a gated equestrian community in the fast-growing northwestern part of the county. He felt safe with a generator and a home with cement-reinforced walls.

Merrill is the president of Florida Urgent Rescue (FUR). The group was one of five local rescues that helped out after Hurricane Harvey, delivering more than 4,000 pounds of dog and cat food and bringing 17 dogs back to Jacksonville.

Once that work was done, Merrill then turned his attention to Irma. Most shelters in rural parts of the state are full of animals and sparsely staffed, he explained. They aren’t able to locate enough volunteers to foster animals during storms in order to clear room at shelters to care for animals stranded by Irma.

“When you have a shelter full of animals, and our local shelters are very full, and then you get a wave of strays, there’s no place for them to go,” said Merrill. “The only thing to do is to kill a bunch of dogs or cats already in shelters to make room for the strays.”

To prevent that, FUR took 24 dogs and nine cats from shelters in Bradford, Baker, Clay and Putnam counties and flew them to no-kill shelters in Minneapolis and Indiana. Delta Air Lines provided free transport.  Two pregnant dogs and two emaciated dogs remain here.

By Sunday, the Merrills were in hunker-down mode. With loaves of bread, snacks and cases of LaCroix water heaped upon the kitchen island, it looked like they were about to host an end-of-summer pool party. The Merrills planned to ride out Irma with 11 dogs and a cat.

They have a full house. In addition to the Merrills’ six large dogs, Jeanne Forney, 58, brought her dogs Myah and Johnny and three puppies she is fostering. She evacuated her home near the Intracoastal Waterway in Jacksonville Beach. Forney is vice president of FUR. Another friend is staying there with her cat.

Asked about provisions for the dogs, Kathy Merrill reached in a cloth shopping bag and pulled out five boxes of dog biscuits. She emptied another bag filled with assorted dog treats onto the kitchen counter.

“We have enough food to last awhile. Dogs first, then people,” joked Mike Merrill.

During Irma, Merrill said he will be coordinating response to the storm with other rescue groups, both providing transport points to move dogs from the hardest hit areas south and to move more shelter dogs out of rural shelters.

— Susan Eastman

Hurricane Irma: Storm moves north after pounding Florida
Heavy winds and rain are seen in Miami on Sunday. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Irma, the record-setting hurricane that devastated islands across the Caribbean, has been churning north through Florida — and has turned its sights on Georgia.

Visit the Capital Weather Gang’s live updates page for more on the storm.