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VET Brings Hope to Communities Impacted by Harvey

Posted September 06, 2017

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Veterinary student Casie Watson examines a horse sheltered in Fort Bend County.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, cities along the Texas coast have been left ravaged, with many of their citizens stranded in the midst of the storm’s extreme flooding. As support from the urban search and rescue task forces and other state and national entities ramped up in response, the Texas A&M Veterinary Emergency Team (VET) stepped in to offer medical support to search-and-rescue canines and other impacted animals.

A advance team of four from the VET—including director Dr. Wesley Bissett, operations officer Dr. Brandon Dominguez, and members Dr. Deb Zoran and D’Lisa Whaley—deployed on Aug. 25 to the Rockport, Texas, area at the request of Texas Task Force 1 (TX-TF1) to care for search-and-rescue canines used in the recovery efforts.

On Aug. 28, a second team of 21, including five fourth-year DVM students on the VET rotation at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), deployed to join the advance team at their reassigned location in Fort Bend County to assist with the extensive flooding in the Houston metroplex.

VET members currently deployed include safety officer Dr. Noberto Espitia, emergency response coordinator CJ Mabry, public information officers Dr. Angela Clendenin and Jennifer Gauntt,  photographer Tim Stephenson, LeTisha Zepeda, Warren Hohertz, Kathy Glaze, Stuart Slattery, Felicia Hall, Jen Klemen, Megan Hackman, Amy Hillburn, Susan Lobit, Laurie Shelton, and Case Rhome, as well as VET rotation students Alex Hawthorn, Casie Watson, Chelsea Payne, Allison Kipp, and Clare Brooks.

There, the VET continued its coordination with emergency management officials; oversaw the treatment and care for large animals sheltered on site; cared for TX-TF1 and TX-TF2 search-and-rescue canines; updated and maintained medical and sheltering records; and continued instruction with the VET rotation students, highlighting specialty care required for search-and-rescue canines, emergency care triage, and inventory control.

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VET members and Texas Task Force 1 members work in Fort Bend County.

The team’s care for TX-TF1 and TX-TF2 search-and-rescue canines is critical as these dogs venture into the dangerous debris left in the aftermath of natural disasters in search of trapped humans.

A TX-TF2 member noted that handlers are often focused on their dog's reactions in guiding them to find missing people and sometimes miss the nuances that can indicate an injury, such as a slight limp or a change in gait.

"These dogs work in really challenging environments; there's mud, there's debris, there are downed power lines. They can get places where humans can't, so, because of that there are some immediate risks," said Dr. Angela Clendenin, VET public information. “Caring for these dogs allows them to be more efficient in the field, which means they can continue to work hard saving lives.”

On Sept. 4, the VET moved its base of operations to Beaumont, where the team began to support the community's increasing need for medical care for both large and small animals as flood waters began to recede. At this new "hub" of operations, the VET has been going on field service calls for stranded and injured animals, including longhorn cattle with bovine pneumonia, horses with flood-related injuries, and cats that had been stranded. Counties covered by these VET operations include Jefferson, Chambers, Orange, Liberty, and Hardin. In addition, a medical operations center has been established in Sour Lake, while operations also continue in Brazoria County and Rockport.

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VET members and Houston SPCA workers collaborate in Beaumont as HSPCA begins transitioning out of the county.

"As we move into the second week of our response effort, it's still staggering to see the damage left by Hurricane Harvey all along the Texas coast—and the subsequent flooding. We have seen truly heroic efforts of neighbors helping neighbors and first responders going to great lengths to get people and animals to safety," said Dr. Wesley Bissett, VET director. "The recovery effort is beginning and will take some time. It's with great pride that we can look at all that is going on around us and recognize the resilience of the citizens of Texas. We're truly humbled to be part of that transition from response to recovery.

"Our mission is an important one. Each and every VET member—including our families and co-workers back in Aggieland, who support our deployments by keeping things moving at home—is contributing to building hope for the residents of the Texas coast," he said. "It's a difficult and tiring task, but we're pushing on to continue serving the state of Texas in its time of need. This means pushing the VET and our resources further than we ever have before, both in personnel and the reach of our medical coverage."

Because of the vast expanse of ground the VET is covering—having worked in at least five counties at a time, and assisting in several others—the relationships the team is building with private practitioners, professional veterinary organizations, and other agencies is becoming an integral part of the VET.

"We're working side by side with veterinarians and veterinary technicians from the Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA), the Texas Equine Veterinary Association (TEVA), and the Brazos Valley Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps," Bissett said. "In addition, we're collaborating with the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) and Texas A&M AgriLife to ensure that animal issues are being addressed across multiple counties. We continue to remain plugged into the statewide response efforts through our partnerships with the Texas A&M Forest Service, TX-TF1, and TX-TF2."

The VET could be deployed for several more weeks, as rescue, response, and recovery efforts begin to expand.

"Right now, the water is still up and the focus is very much on the human side; animals typically will run and find a place to hide to get away from the water as best they can," Clendenin said. "As the water starts to recede, the animal issues are going to really grow.

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VET members D'Lisa Whaley and Dr. Deb Zoran accept a puppy from U.S. Army National Guard soldiers.

"Very soon, those rescue operations that all of the task forces are participating in will become house searches and rescues," she said. "That's when they will take [search-and-rescue] dogs in, and at that time, we'll respond to those other task force dogs that are distant from us now."

Because of the extent of the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey, its reach has extended to multiple areas that have been critically impacted. The team has adapted and split up to enhance the VET's response capability in order to help more communities. The focus is to make sure VET is able to assist at a moment's notice, according to Clendenin.

"It's humbling to be invited into a community—or to be invited to partner with another response team like TX-TF1—and get to do our part to help the citizens of Texas in their time of need," Clendenin said.

The CVM has set up the Veterinary Emergency Disaster Fund, with proceeds benefiting the VET. Visit tx.ag/CVMVETFund for details.

Those interested in the VET’s actions on deployment can follow the VET on Facebook.



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