Teresa Stevenson, director of St. Francis Wildlife Refuge, checks on opossums she is rehabilitating. Several animal cages were damaged by felled trees and limbs from Hurricane Michael. (Kevin D. Liles/For the Washington Post)

As residents of Tallahassee woke up relieved on Thursday that it had been spared from Hurricane Michael’s most brutal gusts, Teresa Stevenson hustled nervously around a den of screeching animals 20 miles away.

She was cut off from the world in a trailer in a 36-acre forest, a quarter-mile down an unpaved road blocked by felled trees and heavy branches. Keeping her company were her two labs, some orphaned squirrels and opossums, a blind raccoon, and a crow with a broken foot. As the director of the St. Francis Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, she nurses injured animals until they can be released back into the wild.

She had decided to wait out the Category 4 storm here — with her babies, as she called them — to make sure the animals weren’t harmed.

“The cage over here is destroyed,” she said as she examined the wreckage. “The cage over there is destroyed. The cage over there is destroyed.”

Trees crashed into the middle of enclosures for hawks, opossums and four baby deer. Branches hung over them. If they fell, Stevenson feared, the animals could die.

No place was left unscathed by the deluge of rain and fierce winds that pummeled the Tallahassee area; many remained without power Thursday. But those who were more fortunate tried to help their neighbors. It was this kindness that Stevenson hoped to tap into to save her animals and her sanity.

She called a colleague, who posted a request for assistance on social media. They dialed in to the local public radio station, telling the public about sick animals that were trapped. Inside the trailer, Stevenson chopped small cantaloupes and rotting bananas to feed the tiny creatures and waited for help.

“I know someone will help us,” said Stevenson, wearing a T-shirt with a squirrel on it. “People are most positive during a hurricane. It brings people together.”


Baby deer look on from inside their enclosure at St. Francis Wildlife Refuge. The facility had several felled trees and limbs on the property, from Hurricane Michael, that damaged outside animal cages. (Kevin D. Liles/For the Washington Post)

Stevenson’s fondness for animals started when she was a girl growing up in Mexico, which led her to study biology in college. She moved to Fort Lauderdale in her 20s and one day rescued a limping mockingbird that was being threatened by neighborhood cats. The experience led her to become a wildlife rehabilitator, choosing to work in this secluded forest outside Tallahassee.

Typically, the center takes in birds, reptiles and rodents that have been hit by cars, tangled in wires or have fallen from trees. The most seriously injured get bandages before moving to outdoor enclosures, and then finally back into the wild.

She came to the trailer on Wednesday, hours before the storm was to make landfall, with an inflatable mattress and her two dogs.

About 2 p.m., the power went out. That’s not too unusual, she thought. But then, a tree crashed into the back of the trailer, near an owl with a broken wing. The owl was safe, but Stevenson became anxious.

There were trees all around her, near enclosures with animals that were not healthy enough to be released. The wind picked up, and Stevenson walked to a window to see pines and Spanish moss flailing in the wind. She stepped outside in the middle of the hurricane because she had grown more worried, and she picked up a crow and opossums and the blind raccoon. Another tree fell behind her. She ran back inside.

The animals were screeching and rattling their cages. Her dogs were scared. Eventually, the rain stopped, the wind settled and she went to sleep.

When the sun rose Thursday, the trailer was a mess. Acorns and berries were strewn across the floor.

Outside, the damage was even worse than she surmised. A cage holding three raccoons had broken, and they all had run away. She told herself that wasn’t the worst thing; they were of good weight and almost fully rehabilitated and would thrive in the wild.

She walked over twigs and fallen branches. That’s when she saw the pine tree slumped across a cage. Four baby deer were in a corner, eyes wide and shaking.

“I got so worried about them,” she said.

Stevenson walked to the unpaved road, which runs by ponds covered with lily pads and trees with “Turtle Crossing” signs on them. She saw that one tree had fallen, and then another, and then a third, right before leading to the nearest thoroughfare. Stevenson felt trapped.

“ST. FRANCIS NEEDS ANGELS WITH CHAINSAWS” read the Facebook post written by her colleague.

Sarah Bauserman, a 21-year-old student at Florida State University, saw the note about noon. She knew how to work a chain saw. So did a family friend, Jacob Krell, 24. And so did her dad, JD Bauserman, a 49-year-old labor economist.

They had helped chop some neighbors’ trees in Tallahassee earlier in the day, but crews from all around the country had come to the city to help with the cleanup. So Sarah Bauserman suggested they loaded up their chain saws and go help the animals. They traveled into Quincy, where the power lines snaked across the roads and large trees lay on the ground, snapped from their roots.


From left: J.D. Bauserman, 49; Jacob Krell, 24; and Sarah Bauserman, 21 help with cleanup from Hurricane Michael at St. Francis Wildlife Refuge. The facility had several felled trees and limbs on the property that damaged outdoor animal cages. (Kevin D. Liles/For the Washington Post)

They found the refuge’s unpaved road. They chopped through the first tree, and the second and the third, and then then saw the tiny trailer, where Stevenson was chopping up more cantaloupes and preparing berry-flavored Greek yogurt to give to the opossums. She pointed them to the tree with the scared baby deer and another one with an injured crow.

The amateur three-person chain saw crew took turns slicing large dead tree trunks into tinier parts and moved them away from the cages. The deer went through the broken doors and ran free.

Krell sat down on a tree log and guzzled Gatorade. One of the baby deer came up to him and started licking the sweat off his arms.

Stevenson was sweeping up the acorns and berries inside the trailer when she heard someone calling her name. It was a woman who had driven up the cleared path and was carrying a baby squirrel that she had found in her driveway after the storm.

“Can you help?” the woman asked.

“We can do it now,” Stevenson said. “It needs warmth and it needs food.”

She wrapped the squirrel in a rag. She prepared more formula. She chopped up more cantaloupes and said, “I’m so glad we can help.”