Kevin Raffee had waited until nearly the last minute. His wife, Julie Lamacchia, had already left their seaside home in Wilmington, N.C.
So Raffee started packing the nine-foot moving van in the driveway — dubbed the “Fluffy Bus” — with what really counted: nearly two dozen cats and dogs the couple saved from possible euthanasia.
For many pets that have been left behind or abandoned after their owners fled this coastal county and surrounding communities, the final days before the storm hits could mean life or death.
Local, government-run animal shelters were filling up fast, and in many jurisdictions, such as Pender County, shelters that hit capacity must “make space,” Jewel Horton, manager of Pender County Animal Shelter, told The Washington Post on Wednesday.
This means putting down animals to reduce overcrowding.
“We are avoiding euthanasia at all costs,” Horton said. “That’s why we’re begging for assistance.”
Organizations such as the Pender County Humane Society are helping to facilitate adoption and are working to clear space in the shelter without having to sacrifice any animals. The roughly 20 dogs and cats in Raffee’s van — bound for a rescue group in Pennsylvania — are animals that now won’t face euthanasia.
“For us, animals are more important than things,” said Lamacchia, who is president of the Burgaw, N.C.-based Humane Society. “Things can be replaced — anything can be replaced — but you can never replace a life, whether it’s a person or an animal.”
Killing animals is the last thing the shelter staff want to do, Horton said.
Usually, when the shelter in the town of about 4,100 people nears capacity, she gets the word out and residents respond. Even in the days before Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Horton was able to find enough homes for the shelter’s animals. But Matthew didn’t hit North Carolina head on.
“People are fleeing this state like no tomorrow,” Horton said. “There’s just not people here to take these animals on.”
As more residents leave under mandatory evacuation orders, the county shelter expects its cages to become more crowded.
Horton said she’s bound by law to accept every animal that comes through her doors.
It’s important that the shelter clear out as many animals as possible now, before the storm hits, because once it does, Horton expects her shelter to be way more cramped.
"When we start hitting recovery mode, space is going to be an issue,” she said. “Getting people here to help us is going to be an issue.”
What to do with pets in a storm is a perennial question, challenging owners, activists and officials every hurricane season. Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, on Twitter, encouraged residents to consider their pets in their disaster preparations.
"Make a plan and practice it with them,” the agency encouraged.
Organizations such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States have become more aggressive about responding to disasters, especially after Hurricane Katrina.
One poll after the devastating storm found that 44 percent of people who chose not to evacuate did so because they didn’t want to leave their pets behind. But still, many animals were abandoned — more than 100,000, according to the Louisiana SPCA. As many as 70,000 died throughout the Gulf Coast.
On Tuesday, the ASPCA issued a plea to pet owners to evacuate their animals with their families and gave them instructions for doing so.
"We can’t stress enough how important it is to incorporate pets into evacuation plans to keep families together and pets safe,” Dick Green, head of the ASPCA’s disaster response unit, said in the statement.
In a separate statement, Green encouraged animal shelters to plan ahead, too.
“It’s imperative that animal shelters take proactive, necessary measures, and collaborate with other agencies if necessary to keep the animals in their care safe during emergency situations,” he said.
The ASPCA and other groups are on the ground in the Carolinas, assisting with local animal relocation efforts.
In Pender County and other areas, animal lovers have used social media and word of mouth to try to pull off a large-scale pet rescue. Samira Davis, a Wilmington resident, volunteered Monday to help the Pender County Humane Society coordinate animal relocation. She said they’ve done a good job — for now.
“We’ve probably saved between 30 and 50 animals, but there are about to be so many more in need,” she said.
What's more, the local Humane Society is strapped for cash, and Lamacchia worries that Hurricane Florence is going to further sap their resources.
“This storm is going to wipe us out,” she said. “If we don’t get people to step up and foster and donate, it’s really going to limit our efforts.”
But in the meantime, all they can do is drive.
At a gas station somewhere between North Carolina and Pennsylvania, Raffee pulled over and took a break. He needed to stretch his legs — and the dogs did, too. He let one pup, which they had named Neil Young Jr., out of its cage.
As Raffee sat on the bumper of the Fluffy Bus, with the dog in his arms, Neil Young Jr. reared its shaggy head and gave Raffee a slobbery kiss on the ear.
Both man and dog were refugees. But there, if only for the moment, all seemed normal.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the date that Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. It was 2005, not 2006.