The water came in slowly at first.
Built on a 10-foot elevation precariously near the Atlantic Ocean in Freeport, the Humane Society of Grand Bahama had seemed like an unlikely place for flooding, even in the face of Category 5 Hurricane Dorian.
But then, according to executive director Tip Burrows, the water came rushing in — the result of a roughly 20-foot storm surge outside — during the peak of Dorian fury on Grand Bahama.
The first distress signal came via Facebook on Monday afternoon from one of the shelter workers: “Asking for immediate help from rescuers. Please spread the word. There are 6 people in the shelter on Coral Road that need immediate help as they are in neck high water.”
The water rose so high that six staffers and three dogs climbed into a crawl space in the ceiling for about two hours before they swam to safety as the waters receded through a drainage system at the shelter.
But 113 dogs and cats died, Burrows said. About 156 dogs and cats, including 26 pets relocated to the shelter before the storm, survived.
The staff, who had been out of contact with Burrows for much of the evening, escaped late Monday or early Tuesday morning.
“We’ve been through several storms there with no flooding issues at all,” said Burrows, who was at home during the worst of the storm. “So the water all of a sudden just started rushing in, they described it sort of like a raging river.”
Some of the pets who survived were reunited with their families in the days after the storm. The rest, including long-term shelter residents, don’t have a home anymore — and they won’t find one in Grand Bahama. So animal welfare groups have gotten to work.
“Our shelter is not habitable for human or beast right now,” Burrows said. “The immediate need is to get these animals off the island to get proper medical attention.”
As foreign aid began to flow into the Bahamas on Thursday morning, animal welfare organizations made plans to fly displaced animals out of Grand Bahama as early as this weekend. Shelters along Florida’s Treasure Coast have agreed to house some of the animals.
Ric Browde, whose organization Wings of Rescue flies shelter animals from overcrowded homes across the U.S., said his group will send an advance team to the Bahamas this week to survey the destruction on the islands. Planes won’t be sent out until this weekend at the earliest, he said.
“I’m afraid of what we’re going to find over there,” said Browde, the president and CEO of the California-based nonprofit. “I don’t think anyone has a grip on how many humans died, not to mention how many dogs died and how many cats are there.”
When Burrows tried to get to the Humane Society of Grand Bahama after the storm had passed, she couldn’t access it with her Jeep. She had to hitch a ride in a garbage truck.
When she got there, she said, the back of the shelter resembled a lake, and shelter vehicles that had been left in the parking lot were a total loss. The water was up to her waist as she walked up to the front door.
Inside, the loss of the animals was as bad as she had feared, though many cats had been able to climb to perches above the waterline.
“It felt like you’d been punched in the gut,” she said.
She said many of the dogs that died were long-term residents of the shelter. Others were entrusted to them by pet owners who evacuated or couldn’t care for them during the storm.
“We lost some dogs that various staff, including me, were super attached to,” she said. “That’s hard. That’s really hard.”
Burrows said the Humane Society is the only animal shelter on Grand Bahama, which has a substantial stray dog population. The shelter takes in about 1,200 dogs every year.
“I was there when we built this facility,” she said. “The buildings are still standing but everything else is just absolutely ruined. We lost everything.”
There is a silver lining, however: “To have this many animals still alive is miraculous.”
And at least one of the owners who left a dog at the shelter has been reunited with her pet.
JoNique Sarah posted a photo of herself and her dog, Blaze, to Facebook on Tuesday. The gray pit bull, with its mouth open as if in a smile, looks about as happy as she does.
“People from all over the world prayed that we’d find Blaze and after walking through waist deep water from the [roundabout] to the Humane Society and searching through every room, Lalique and Shaylah found our baby!!! The experience was heart-wrenching for them, it’s a blessing he survived,” she wrote on Facebook.
An online fundraiser for the shelter has raised about $62,700.
Wings of Rescue will use Fort Lauderdale as a base for its flights, and will ferry in humanitarian aid for people and pets, while flying animals out. Browde said his organization would likely use Florida as a stopover for the animals, and send them to their new shelters from that location.
He is acutely concerned that the animals might have been exposed to leptospirosis, a bacterial disease spread by contact with contaminated water.
The animals may also need vaccines.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that animals brought into the country for commercial sale or adoption must appear in good health and be vaccinated for rabies, distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parvovirus and parainfluenza virus. These animals can’t come to the U.S. without a health certificate and rabies vaccination certificate issued by a veterinarian from the country of export or an import permit issued by the federal government.
“We hope to very soon be announcing how we’re going to be bringing these pets out,” Browde said. “We have to get these pets all vaccinated before they come into the country.”
But the USDA is working in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal entities to make it easier for animals from the Bahamas to be relocated to the U.S.
“We are working towards a waiver to facilitate animal movement from the island,” said USDA spokesman Andre Bell.
If the Bahamian government requests assistance, Miami-Dade County Animal Services will be ready to assist, a spokesman said. The county can relocate homeless animals with foster volunteers, place them for adoption locally or help transport the animals to other shelters and rescue organizations across Florida and in other states.
“We continue to be in close contact with the County Emergency Operations Center as they coordinate the overall plan for supporting the Bahamas,” said spokesman Erik Hofmeyer in a statement. “Miami-Dade County would provide emergency services for animals if requested by the government of The Bahamas.”
A spokeswoman for the Humane Society of Broward County said that facility would “definitely be receptive to help in any way we can.”
Jacquelyn Petrone, the founder and executive director of HALO Rescue, a no-kill shelter based in Sebastian, said her group has secured charter planes to take off from Fort Pierce as soon as they have clearance from the Bahamian authorities to land at the airport in Freeport.
“Freeport airport is not available yet, which is where we need to get into,” Petrone said. “So we are now trying boats.”
While much of the focus is on the Humane Society of Grand Bahama, Browde said Wings of Rescue will also likely fly into Nassau to assess the needs there, especially when it comes to stray pets.
One woman in the the Bahamian capital city made national news during Dorian because she took in 97 stray dogs to shelter them during the storm, with 79 of them in her master bedroom.
Graciela “Chella” Phillips, who runs the animal-rescue group Voiceless Dogs of Nassau, Bahamas, has been housing and feeding stray dogs at her refuge for about four years. She said her organization had been trying to raise awareness about the plight of stray dogs in Nassau since she began feeding them on the streets 14 years ago.
“I am just an animal lover,” she said.
She raises money online each month to pay for her work. This month, after her efforts to save so many dogs went public, she surpassed her $20,000 goal — by a lot. As of Thursday, she raised $248,618.
“Dogs are drowning. People are missing,” Phillips said. “We are just fortunate.”