MOORE, Okla.—It all boils down to this: If your kids are OK, you can face the unimaginable for what can seem an interminable time.
One week after a mighty tornado demolished the better part of her town, Kristi Scroggins, DVM, continued to log countless hours working with animal victims, volunteers and owners, splitting her time between the Home Depot triage center and local animal shelters.
"I was pretty much in shock, and the main thing was, I had to get to my kids,” Scroggins recalled as she paused for an interview during her marathon tenure as veterinary jack-of-all-trades at the tornado disaster site.
Her serene and loving face belied the weariness and frustration Scroggins surely bore. Her extraordinary tale of how her 4-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son survived the storm, as did her veterinary hospital, employees and patients, is a reminder that we are certain only of this day. The value of a single human life outweighs billions of dollars’ worth of lumber, bricks, mortar, steel, vehicles, jewelry and landscaping.
On the afternoon of May 20, as hysterical, escalating warnings of an approaching deadly storm swelled the broadcast airwaves, Scroggins was behind the wheel of her vehicle, doggedly heading for St. John’s Lutheran School to get to her daughter, Kobi. Son Brody was with his classmates at Heritage Trails Elementary School, which would turn out to be about a half mile from the storm’s path, she said.
"I was picking her up early, then I was going to get my son,” she said. "From the time the tornado formed and hit Moore, there was no time at all. … My clinic was open, but I wasn’t there,” she said.
Scroggins rode out the storm with Kobi at her school. Neither of her children’s schools was hit by the tornado.
When the storm had passed and her kids were safe, Scroggins headed for her hospital, fearing the worst.
Downed power lines and impassable streets turned a two-mile trip into a nerve-wracking, 2½-hour journey.
Besides 16 hospitalized animals, Scroggins Animal Hospital employed two other veterinarians and additional support employees.
"I’d told them ‘If it gets bad, you get out,’ and that’s what they did,” she said. "Half of the staff left and went to Norman.”
One veterinary technician, whose home was about a half mile north of Brody’s school, picked up her own son at his baby sitter’s house, and persuaded the sitter to accompany them home, where the technician had a storm shelter. The tech’s home was damaged, "But the baby sitter’s home was destroyed,” Scroggins said.
Meanwhile, "The streets were closed, so I went to the 7-11 and walked to the clinic. By that time, everybody had trickled back,” she said. Miraculously, her staff members were all uninjured and no one’s house was destroyed. The tornado missed her animal hospital by 50 to 100 feet, Scroggins estimated.
”Once I established that everybody was OK, I called the Moore Animal Shelter director and said, ‘Where do you need me and when do you need me?’ I just started throwing (medical) stuff into buckets.”
Days blurred into nights.
"That first day was sheer chaos,” she said.
Time of Emergency
Eventually, an animal triage center was established at the Home Depot store. Volunteers, many of them veterinarians, began receiving lost and injured animals, assessing their condition and either housing them or sending them to local veterinary hospitals. An initial problem for Scroggins, and probably several other clinics, was the loss of electrical power. Hers was not restored for four days.
"I’m trained, but without power I couldn’t help my clients,” she said. "I felt very helpless, because there wasn’t much I could do for them.”
So Scroggins divided her time between the Moore Animal Shelter and the Cleveland County fairgrounds in Norman, one of three official animal rescue centers established. Other rescues were set up at the Oklahoma City Animal Shelter and the Animal Resource Center, or ARC, an obedience training facility in Oklahoma City.
Kimberly Weiss, DVM, was working at an Oklahoma City clinic as the storm approached.
"We put all our client animals in the basement and watched TV,” she said. By 3:30 p.m., the tornado was declared to have passed and at 5:30 p.m. the McClain County Emergency Response Team, on which she serves, was activated.
"It took me two hours to drive 13 miles,” Weiss said. "It was such a blur.”
Weiss lived at the Home Depot triage center from 8 p.m. that day until 8 p.m. four days later.
"I slept in my car in the parking lot. I went home to shower once,” she said. "The power was out about three days. The first night we were doing treatments on animals with practically nothing. We (veterinarians) were raiding all our stuff and sending animals to emergency hospitals.”
Jana Black, executive director of the Oklahoma Veterinary Medical Association, noted, "If you can say anything fortunate about this, the tornado hit one of the areas of the state with the [largest] concentration of veterinarians.”
On Memorial Day, one week after the tornado, Moore was nearly as deserted as on a holiday. But backyard cookouts were replaced with county vehicles and fire engines tending to the tasks at hand, and in place of mowing and gardening, residents picked their way through piles of wood, twisted metal, glass and bricks, carrying big black trash bags.
Although a local news team continued to monitor the scene, the major national news personalities and their retinues had deserted the city in favor of the next sensational newsbreak.
Some 80 dogs and 55 cats waited at the Animal Resource Center, some to be found, some to be housed until their owners were housed, and some with nowhere to go. A handsome tan-and-white dog with pointed nose and ears chewed happily on a rawhide, smiling up at his visitors. The paperwork on his cage read: "Owner killed in tornado. No known name.” God only knows how many dogs and cats he represented among the three rescue centers. Veterinarians and staff members were photographing and cataloging the animals that day to create a centralized data bank for lost animals.
Only a small percentage of rescue animals had been microchipped, according to Rod Hall, DVM, Oklahoma state veterinarian. Each dog and cat was given a U.S. Department of Agriculture number, a microchip and a veterinary exam to determine whether medical treatment was needed.
At the ARC and the Cleveland County fairgrounds shelters, pedestrian traffic seemed light. Donated supplies of all kinds were plentiful in organized stacks. Hall said assistance for animal rescue came entirely from private and corporate donors.
During the fairgrounds interview, Scroggins paused to greet one of her clients whose family, but not much else, had been spared. The admirably chipper, white-haired woman seemed reassured to see Dr. Scroggins and said she was looking for Rambo, her Yorkie mix. The rest of her pets were safe. For the umpteenth time that week, Scroggins bestowed her kindness and compassion that made these people feel as though no one else existed in her world, at that moment. She said the kindheartedness of people was remarkable that week.
"Everything you see in this building, and going on in here, has been donated by people and volunteers,” she said, tears welling up. "That first night, I must have had 20 text messages from people just checking on me.”
Vet sector rushes to aid tornado victims
Banfield Pet Hospital, VCA Animal Hospitals and Hill’s Pet Nutrition were among dozens of pet-related companies and organizations assisting animals and their owners after the deadly Moore, Okla., tornado.
Portland, Ore.-based Banfield provided free office visits to pets at 14 of its Oklahoma hospitals to free office visits for pets in need. The offer was good for two weeks.
Six VCA Animal Hospitals offered free boarding for dogs, cats, birds and pocket pets whose owners lost their homes or were evacuated.
"Our thoughts are with the families who have been impacted by this disaster,” said Art Antin, chief operating officer of Los Angeles-based VCA. "We want families to know that their pets can be cared for in a safe environment while they take care of family issues and manage their personal priorities.”
Topeka, Kan.-based Hill’s Pet Nutrition activated its new Disaster Relief Network. Within two hours of the tornado, Hill’s began working with veterinary clinics and shelters to ship thousands of pounds of dog and cat food.
Also assisting animals were:
• Medical products distributor Henry Schein Inc. of Melville, N.Y., which opened a Disaster Relief Hotline, 800-999-9729, for customers who suffered operational, logistical or financial problems because of the tornado.
• The Washington, D.C.-based American Humane Association, which dispatched its Red Star Animal Emergency Services team and a convoy of vehicles, including the 82-foot-long Red Star Rescue Rig, to Oklahoma.
• The New York-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which sent a disaster response team to assist with shelter operations at the Central Oklahoma Humane Society.
• The Oklahoma Veterinary Medical Association, which accepted donations.
State veterinarian mobilized rescue efforts
Tornado’s animal casualties ranged from koi to cattle. Horses fared the worst.
In Oklahoma, the state veterinarian’s job entails much more than working with politicians and bureaucratic paperwork.
Since assuming his title in 2011, Rod Hall, DVM, has dealt with increasingly heartbreaking challenges: in 2011, a tornado wiped out the town of Tushka. In 2012, wildfires savaged miles of land, homes and animals in northeastern Oklahoma. It’s probably a blessing that Hall didn’t know those events were a prelude to his largest disaster to date: the EF5 tornado that hit Moore on May 20.
"The first few nights, I didn’t get much sleep at all,” Hall said. He spent the first night at the Oklahoma Emergency Management Agency’s emergency operations center. During the course of the response effort, he has worked with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, Oklahoma Department of Transportation, Oklahoma Department of Public Health and the Red Cross.
Hall’s office is part of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture soon joined the emergency effort and was instrumental in organizing the animal rescue, he said.
One week after the tornado slammed through Moore, Hall said 269 animals had been treated for injuries at the triage center housed at the Home Depot store. Of those, 26 were referred to local veterinary clinics for additional medical care. An additional 176 were relocated to three rescue shelters, and 148 had been reunited with their owners, Hall said. Some 331 people had completed lost-animal forms.
Most recovered small animals were dogs and cats, but some koi fish had been relocated to one of his staff’s ponds, and a gerbil and several pet chickens also figured into the mix.
While few small-animal carcasses had been recovered, Hall said more than 150 large-animal carcasses, mostly horses, were left in the tornado’s wake. Some cattle, goats and two pigs were also killed, he said.
Roughly 50 livestock, again mostly horses, survived and needed medical treatment, Hall said.
Many horse farms and small acreages are located in Moore, a small community south of Oklahoma City. "This [area has] the largest private horse training facilities area in the state,” he said. About 89 horses died on those farms.
The 23 human lives lost affected Hall most deeply, he said. "I’ve seen tornadoes and what they can do. But the photographs of those dead horses just piled up. … They were in small paddocks and stalls, and just couldn’t get away. The answer is, nothing could have been done to prevent this,” Hall said.
"If they had had a shelter to put those horses into, they wouldn’t have had time. Then when it hit, it piled them up just like it did cars and debris. That one picture just made me cry, almost,” he said. "Those were some very expensive horses.”
Hall said a few horses were injured so severely they had to be euthanized, and local veterinarians generously stepped up to the plate.
"I want to thank the private veterinarians not working for us, who provided a lot of vet care for horses that were still alive,” he said. "Lots of money and supplies were donated through the horse industry, as well as small animal stuff.”
At the Cleveland County fairgrounds on Memorial Day, Animal Control officials from Tyler, Texas, dropped off 1 ton of feed, 47 bales of hay and an assortment of dog food and veterinary supplies.
"We’ve been fielding calls from all over the country from people wanting to donate,” said Jana Black, executive director of the Oklahoma Veterinary Medical Association.
The association has been a clearing house for not only private donations, but corporate veterinary supply houses. Black said the Oklahoma Veterinary Medical Foundation trustees would determine how the money would be dispersed, and some would go toward reimbursing private veterinarians for supplies used at no charge to treat rescued animals.
Donations may be made to the Oklahoma Veterinary Medical Foundation, a 501(c)3 corporation, at P.O. Box 14521, Oklahoma City, OK, 73113, or at /redirect.aspx?location=www.okvma.org.
By Lou Anne Epperley, DVM
For Veterinary Practice News